Feature: How to be like Walt

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Sept. 1, 2004 at 6:43 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Sept. 1 (UPI) -- Orlando Magic Vice President Pat Williams has written another book in his "How to Be Like" series, this one an examination of the late entertainment legend Walt Disney.

Williams -- who previously wrote books on how to be like Jesus and how to be like Michael Jordan -- has again collaborated with writer Jim Denney, this time for what Williams called a "motivational biography" of Disney.

In an interview with United Press International, Williams said younger people in the United States do not remember Disney as a person.

"They think he's a character like Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck," said Williams.

After all, the man who created Mickey and Donald has been dead for nearly 40 years. He died of cardiac arrest and cancer in 1966 -- 12 years after Disneyland opened in Southern California.

Considering the degree to which children around the world, and in the United States in particular, are exposed to the Disney brand -- including a vast library of entertainment products and a never-ending line of consumer items -- Williams said Walt Disney's historic and cultural influence is comparable with that of figures such as Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King.

"He was arguably the most impactful person of the 20th century," said Williams. "And he will touch more lives in the 21st century than any other person."

Williams said "How to Be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic Every Day of Your Life" is not just another biography.

"They have been done," he said. "We wanted to teach, inspire, instruct and motivate people through the life of Walt Disney. He's never been treated in a book in that fashion before."

Williams said the book presents Disney's flaws as well as his accomplishments -- including his three-or-four-pack-a-day smoking habit and his tendency to drive his employees fairly hard.

"Not all players love their coaches," said the NBA executive. "But talk to those old (NFL) Green Bay Packers now, and they are reverent as they talk about Vince Lombardi."

Lombardi was known as a fierce competitor and a merciless taskmaster who popularized the phrase, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."

Williams said many of his interviews with people who knew and worked for Disney -- many of whom are now in their 80s or 90s -- ended in tears.

"They realize now how meaningful it was, how significant it was," he said. "They realize now that he forced them to absolutely do things that they probably never thought they could do -- which may have been one of Walt's greatest gifts, to bring out the best in people."

Williams said his goal in writing the book was to try to identify what personal qualities Disney had that allowed him to achieve so much. He said it helped enormously that he had the blessing of Disney's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, for the project, and most people he contacted were willing to speak freely on the subject.

"There were a few who would not talk, but I could name them on one hand," he said. "By and large they all talked to me."

In the book -- and in his interview with UPI -- Williams described the thrill of joining "Davy Crockett" star Fess Parker in singing the theme song from the '50s Disney show during their telephone conversation.

Williams said that, ultimately, Disney's strong suit was his willingness to dream big dreams.

"Walt teaches us to dream," he said. "Dream big. Dream widely. Dream often. Dream in Technicolor."

He said the quote posted at the Epcot Center resort in Florida -- "If you can dream it you can do it" -- summed up Disney's philosophy that if one frees up the imagination, then creativity can flow.

"When Walt would come up with these ideas, if his cohorts agreed with him, he said it's not big enough," said Williams.

Williams also concluded that Disney owed his success to perseverance. Disney even coined a word for it -- "stick-to-it-ivity."

Even though the book calls attention to Disney's imperfections -- he could "turn a salty phrase" and "was known to take a nip" in his day -- Williams is quick to point out that Disney was never involved in scandal.

"No character flaws, no moral failures," said Williams. "He and his wife had a wonderful marriage. He was a wonderful father."

Disney was 65 when he died in 1966. The Walt Disney Co. is one of the world's largest conglomerates, but Williams said Disney's death left the company directionless for years because there was no clear, established line of succession.

"When he was in the hospital for the last time," said Williams, "he said to his son-in-law, Ron Miller, 'If I could live 20 more years, I could do more than I did in the last 60.'"


(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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