The Real Walt Disney: Review of Walt Disney, An American Original

Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas (The Walt Disney Company, 1994)

Bob Thomas’ Walt Disney: An American Original is not just one of the best biographies I have ever read—it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Bob Thomas was an Associated Press reporter during Hollywood’s heyday and is best known for his biographies of the icons of the era, including Howard Hughes and Abbott and Costello.

Thomas’ wonderful work is best cast against another leader in its genre, The First Tycoona book I also loved. When you finish an incredible biography like The First Tycoon about Cornelius Vanderbilt, you’re left feeling a little gross, because you can’t believe the corporate world of today was formed by such a relentless and ruthless man. But, when you read about Walt Disney’s relentlessness, which formed modern animation (and entertainment at large), you’re inspired. Both The First Tycoon and Walt Disney are full of intrigue, suspense, backstabbing, and ultimately insight. Both make you want to do more and be more, but the character of Disney makes you want to be a better person. Thomas makes you want to tell a better story with your life and—if you’re a writer—Thomas also makes you want to improve your craft. Thomas’ prose is eloquent. At times, the details are mind-numbing, but even those usually get picked up on later, making you realize that Thomas really is as good of a writer as you suspected. (Even Disney’s childhood and youth years are entertaining, which include Disney impersonating older people to get jobs or simply get a laugh.)

I generally stay away from the “authorized biography” as I find them to smooth out the flaws in a person and highlight their successes, but Disney understood story—including his own. Disney allows Thomas to show him for who he really is: Disney is raw, real, and persistent. If I was to snap judge Disney, I would say he is a good person and more of a creative than a businessman. (Roy, Walt’s brother, is the businessman.) Disney is a believer in what can be. And he knows how to sell his ideas. What he isn’t very good at is controlling costs. It’s comforting to know how hard the process was for Disney. Even the great Disney had a nervous breakdown and was often irritable (e.g., pgs. 104–105, 299, 340).

I always thought of Disney as a man who had a rough upbringing and was determined to be an artist. In my mind, Disney one day invented Mickey Mouse, convinced some people to play a short film of Mickey, and then became famous. But this narrative is only half true. Disney’s first company folded (pg. 56). And Disney worked for others to learn the trade and gain credibility. And more than once, Disney gets strong armed by “partners” who essentially steal his work and then hire his most talented animators (pgs. 79, 86, 103). One of these “partners” legally, but unfairly, took Disney’s first hit character, named Oswald. And at one point, Disney finds himself 4 Million dollars in debt, with two flops under his belt—which are the now hit films, Pinocchio and Bambi (pg. 186). Disney built his business in tumultuous times: World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. His tenacity kept him going through it all. He had vision and he didn’t care if others couldn’t see it—including his brother and business partner Roy. Instead of giving up, Walt would simply enroll others and show them the humor in the situation. Walt was optimistic and that is a great part of what led to his success.

Walt Disney is full of incredible business stories. One night, when Disney was in the office late reviewing the work of animators, he shuffled through drawings in the wastebasket of an animator. He then un-crumpled the paper and wrote on it: “Quit throwing the good stuff away” (pg. 128). Disney was clearly the director of his operation, and the main idea man, but his process for being so is wonderful: He would send out a memo detailing his idea, and then note that everyone should come with specific things to add to it (like gags, lines, and suggested techniques for displaying character attributes; pgs. 116–117). Disney knew what he wanted, but he filled out the vision with the work of others.

But it’s not enough to be full of ideas, a person has to know logistics. And Disney did. He was involved with the details of his parks in extreme detail and often impressed his technicians with how quickly he understood the problems at hand (pg. 310).

Walt Disney is also about entrepreneurship. And that means it’s all about sacrifice. Disney gave up meals, shared rooms, and often slept in his office (e.g., pgs. 65–66). Disney was willing to give and give and give, to make his vision real. Yet it’s not just sacrifice that made Disney who he was. He was fiercely loyal, to his wife, friends, and family, and used his loyalty as a baseline for all of his interactions. At times, Disney would fall for another person’s charisma, but when the truth came out about them, he knew when to cut his losses. And because Disney was loyal, he valued most those who were loyal to him, even when they failed.

It’s hard to remember that when we talk about Disney that we’re talking about a man from a small farming town, whose family later moved to Kansas City. Disney didn’t have a great education and had trouble focusing in school. But Disney had grit and passion.

Disney didn’t one day become Walt Disney. He wasn’t born as the man we know—and he certainly wasn’t born into his success. Disney also didn’t make it on his own; he did it in partnership and collaboration, with mainly the same animators and business partner (his brother) along the way. Disney only made it because he had investors, took risks, sacrificed, and refused to stop learning. He grew, constantly. And Disney, like Peter Pan, refused to grow up. 5 stars.


(I read this book as part of Logos Bible Software’s “Read for Cash” program. The author and/or publisher in no way influenced my review. However, the links above are affiliate links, which means I will receive a very small amount if you click them and then make a purchase.)

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