Walt Disney has left the World such an enormous legacy, few in history did not, or in the future will have difficulty vanquishing. But sadly, like many famous people before him, have also left a plethora of rumors and legends surrounding him. Some of the more disgusting untruths, i.e. “Walt was a bigot”, “Walt was an anti-Semite” still circulate today. However, over the years a persistent tale was that of Walt’s last word or words were written was that of consummate actor Kurt Russell. Why was his name the last thing on Walt’s mind before he passed? Many people believe that they can fill in the blanks about a famous celebrity or what they held dear in their last moments of life. Walt Disney was no exception.
Before we delve any further, let’s talk about Kurt Russell himself. Kurt was born in Springfield Massachusetts, March 17th, 1951. Raised in Los Angeles, Kurt loved baseball. His father, Bing Russell starred in the Bonanza TV show as Deputy Clem, and also co-starred in some of the most popular TV series in the early years…Playhouse 90, Highway Patrol, Wagon Train, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Loretta Young Show, Johnny Ringo, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and many more. He was also the owner of a minor league baseball team.
At the young age of 9, Kurt wanted to go into acting when he discovered that sports legends Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were contemplating a movie called “Safe at Home”. He auditioned for a part, but did not get it. He did however garner a role (Uncredited) in Elvis Presley’s “It Happened at the World’s Fair” From this minor start, he secured a role in the short-running TV series, “The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters” taken from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written by Robert Lewis Taylor. He starred as Jaimie McPheeters and his adventures on a Wagon Train. This was the ticket to Walt Disney and his 10-year contract with the studio, starring in 10 Disney live action films. Kurt once said… “The Disney years were my education in the film business.” “I was fortunate to be able to work there consistently.”
His list of acting credits is impressive before contracting with Walt Disney. He guest starred in the shows “The Fugitive”, “Rin Tin Tin”, “Our Man Higgins”, “The Eleventh Hour”, “The Virginian”, “Gunsmoke” “The Man from Uncle” and several episodes of “Daniel Boone”. In addition, he played a Jungle Boy on “Gilligan’s Island”, and had roles in “The Legend of Jesse James, the “Texas Rangers” and “Laredo”
With this background, and his all-American “apple pie and ice cream” demeanor, he co-starred at 15 years old in his first Disney picture with future Disney Legend Fred MacMurray, “Follow Me Boys”. Walt took an immediate shine to the young actor, and after this first film, urged him to sign a 10-year exclusive studio contract. This enamored him as the new teenage Disney star to thousands of fans of the “60’s and “70’s. When it was all done, Russell made 12 features in all for Disney, including… The Barefoot Executive, The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit, Sky High, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and the two sequels, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t and The Strongest Man in the World, Charley and the Angel, and Superdad. He also starred in the Disney musical The One and Only, Genuine Original Family Band, Miracle and guarding of the Galaxy. Follow Me Boys is also significant for being the final live action film produced by Walt Disney, which was released two weeks before his death.
Because of Walt’s fondness of the young star, Russell fashioned a close, personal relationship with Walt. It was because of this “intense” relationship that the legend began that Walt’s last words written were “Kurt Russell” But Kurt did have a special connection with Walt. Kurt recalled… “We did have a personal relationship. We played Ping-Pong at lunch sometimes. He’d come down to set. We’d go watch movies that the studio was making, and he’d come down and ask if I wanted to go see them. He’d took me around and introduced me to all the different departments at Disney, and at one point gave me a bunch of original photo cells that they make the backdrop drawings of the characters and stuff like that,”
He continued… “There were many, many things that I connected with him.” “He reminded me a lot of my own grandfather. My grandfather was a creative and sort of inventive man, and they were not dissimilar in their demeanor” He said that Walt was very important in his life and he had learned a “tremendous amount” from him. Walt even gave Kurt career advice. Russell always loved baseball and actually played pro baseball for a while. Walt told him that he didn’t think that that was for him. “Baseball might not be something that you end up doing as a career” Walt said.
However, the legend of Walt’s last words has been around for decades, and Walt also liked a lot of the other young performers who worked for the studio, as well. After many years of the “Legend” of Walt’s last words, a bit of light at the end of the tunnel appeared. Walt had two offices…A formal one to officially greet visitors and next door, a working office where Walt sequestered himself to catch up on the day’s work. After Walt’s passing, the offices were locked shut and never touched, everything left just as Walt left it. When the Disney Archives was formed in June of 1970, archivist Dave Smith inventoried and insured that every item, even the paperclips were left exactly as if Walt just left for the day.
One day in April of 2007, Kurt was on the Jimmy Kimmel Live talk show, to promote his new film, “Death Proof” and there he confirmed the last words Walt wrote just before he was admitted to the hospital where he died was “Kurt Russell. “It’s true. I don’t know what to make of that. I was taken into his office one time after he died and I was shown that,” Russell said. Going back to 1971, Archivist Dave Smith said…Kurt Russel was on the lot filming Now you see him, now you don’t. I went down to the stage one lunchtime and said…” I’ve got something I want you to see up in Walt’s office. And I took him up to Walt’s office and showed him one of the last things Walt had written was his name, he was quite impressed” “Even though Walt misspelled it, Kirt!”
On Walt’s desk are copies of “The Disney World”, the company magazine, and among the paperwork is a note dated September 8th, 1966…”to discuss with Card Walker and others” about the Progress report on the Disney World Project. Almost lost to time is a typewritten note entitled…”TV Projects in Production: ready for production or possible for escalation and story” It appears to be a list of future live action productions. Glance down to the bottom of the note and you can see the actual notes Walt made with his favorite red grease pencil…Ron Miller, Way Down Cellar, Kirt Russell (Note misspelled Kurt) and CIA-Mobley. So what does all this mean? First, Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law was a producer on some of his live-action movies. In January of 1968, there was a two-part film shown on Disney television entitled “Way Down Cellar” as indicated on the note. The premise is about three boys who, while searching for a lost ball, the trio discover a secret tunnel to the ruins of a church and a haunted house.
Kurt Russell’s name is misspelled, Walt writing “Kirt”, and the last item is a nod to actor Roger Mobley, who played the lead role in the weekly Disney TV series Gallegher. But how can one discover what was on Walt’s mind, as he scribbled these last lines before entering the hospital? It is possible that right up to the end of his life, Walt continued to work, noting the Florida project and upcoming Disney Studio films. Possible that he wanted Russell or Mobley for the lead roles.
Kurt Russell, unlike so many other child stars, successfully transitioned into playing adult roles. Some of his most memorable roles in such action-adventure offerings such as Escape from L.A., The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. His other credits include Silkwood, Stargate, Executive Decision, Backdraft, and Soldier.
It is very possible that Kurt’s future success in films was due to the magic of Walt Disney and his brief, but lasting impression he made on the young actor. Walt passed away when Kurt was just a teenager. Kurt recalls when Walt passed… “When I was over at Universal working on a Western while under contract at Disney, I was shooting a close-up and noticed there was some hubbub going on off camera. Then everybody went quiet. They were looking at me and I thought, ‘What the hell’s this?”. “This guy came over to me and said, ‘I’m sorry to tell you this, Kurt, but Walt Disney died.” “They were all very sweet. The director asked me if I was okay to work and I said, Oh, yeah, sure. Go ahead.”
He continued… “His death was a surprise and I was saddened by it. But, I don’t look at death as some sort of finality. It’s sad you won’t be able to spend time you had together. At that moment, I immediately appreciated the time I shared with Walt more than ever”. “What Walt represented to me was someone who was constantly aware of what might be fun to do, not necessarily cutting edge or different or what would blow people away, but what might be fun. I remember he would always say, ‘Wouldn’t that be fun?”
After those initial Disney classic films, Kurt continued on at the Disney company. In 1970 he narrated an almost forgotten Disney classic, “Dad, Can I borrow the Car?” He provided the voice for the hunting dog Copper in the feature “The Fox and the Hound”. Russell appeared in other Disney TV shows, “Willie and the Yank” and “The Secret of Boyne Castle”. He also hosted the 1970 Wonderful World of Disney episode “Disneyland Showtime” along with the Osmond Brothers. In the show, Kurt gave first glimpse to a new Disney theme park attraction, “The Haunted Mansion”. In 1979, he earned an Emmy nomination for his role as Elvis Presley in the John Carpenter film, “Elvis”.
Kurt returns to the Disney Studios to star in the Buena Vista release, “Captain Ron” and in 1993 he portrays Wyatt Earp in the film “Tombstone”. In 2004, he starred as United States Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks in the sports docudrama, “Miracle” depicting the United States men’s hockey team besting the favored Soviet professional team in the 1980 Olympics. He also starred in the Disney comedy “Sky High” in 2005. Russell continues his magic under Walt Disney’s studios in the film “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” The film grossed more than $863 million worldwide, giving it the eighth highest grossing film of 2017.
So with a film career spanning over 58 years, Kurt Russell is an American success story. How much of that is credited to the short exposure of Walt Disney’s influence? No one will ever know. But Kurt did make enough impression on the heart and soul of Walt Disney to include his name is his final thoughts. So the legend is not really false because Kurt’s name, although spelled incorrectly was indeed among Walt Disney’s ending words.