“We can’t sue God!” : the day Kirk Douglas took Disney to court – Actus Ciné

On the set of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” in 1954, Kirk Douglas had appreciated Walt Disney, whom he had found listening to the film crew. Two years later, relations will become much less cordial… What happened?

We can never say enough how Kirk Douglas was a great actor; one of the very last stars of a golden age of Hollywood who died at the more than venerable age of 103, in 2020. His immense contribution to cinema was notably crowned internationally with a César d honor in 1980, an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1996, and an honorary Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2001.

He who turned with the Who’s Who directors in Hollywood. The list even makes you dizzy: Otto Preminger, Howard Hawks, Richard Fleischer, Elia Kazan, Vincente Minnelli, Anthony Mann, John Frankenheimer, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Aldrich, John Sturges, Jacques Tourneur, and so many more…

It is precisely under the leadership of the veteran Richard Fleischer that he will turn in 1954 for Walt Disney one of the absolute classics of his filmography, 20,000 leagues under the sea; wonderful adaptation of the Jules Verne classic in which Douglas played the dashing sailor Ned Leland. This is the first big-budget live-action film from the Disney studio, which will also be awarded a double Oscar for this film.

Douglas will remember with pleasure a pleasant shooting on this ambitious film, saluting in passing a Walt Disney listening to the team. Two years later, relations will become much less cordial… What happened?

In his autobiography published in 1988, The Ragpicker’s SonKirk Douglas wrote: “I was shocked at Disney’s nerve to exploit my children”. What was the object of the actor’s wrath to the point of holding a grudge thirty years after the fact?

In 1956, Kirk Douglas and his two young children, Joel and Michael, decided to spend a Saturday afternoon at the Holmby Hills estate belonging to Disney, which was a gigantic mansion with no less than 17 bathrooms, 8 bedrooms, swimming pool and tennis court, but also golf practice, a library… A Resort for ultra VIP guests. A paradise also for children, who could even ride a small 1/8 scale train, which circulated in the middle of a park of more than 1.6 hectares.

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Shortly after, on April 4, 1956 precisely, the actor had the unpleasant surprise of discovering himself perched on the little train in question, playing the locomotive conductor with a horde of kids, in an episode of the Disneyland program, a TV show of Disney baptized Where Do the Stories Come From.

Douglas quickly went from surprise to anger. “I wrote Walt Disney a letter telling him that I would have preferred that he never use the images of my children and me for commercial purposes”specifying that he received in return a letter of apology.

The incident could have ended there. But barely two months later, on June 6, 1956, the program was rebroadcast, still including the images incriminated by the actor… Douglas was beside himself and, on the advice of his lawyer, decided to attack justice not only Walt Disney himself, but also the studios, the ABC tv channels, and even the brands that sponsored the program. For Douglas, it was a matter of principle, and in the event that he won the looming legal tussle, he planned to donate the compensation earned to charity.

But shortly before the trial, he was plagued by doubt. “I thought, ‘what am I doing? There are people in our profession – Bob HopeWalt Disney – that can’t hurt”. Despite the objections of his lawyer, he dropped the charges: “I doubt I could have got away with it. You can’t sue God!”

If Douglas considers himself to be offended by this affair, some were skeptical: the examination of the video sequence in question did not seem at all to allow the identification of his two sons, nor are they explicitly named…

Close examination of the complaint also revealed itself to be strange: it not only requested the tidy sum of $400,000 in damages, but also $15,000 in “compensation for work done” in the offending images. Difficult to plead the invasion of privacy when one claims in addition a sum for a so-called work carried out… The emoluments requested corresponded in addition to the stamps that he negotiated to monetize his more or less furtive appearances…

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Image extracted from the offending sequence. In front of Douglas stands Walt Disney.

For its part, Disney was not exempt from any reproach in this affair. If the studio accepted at first glance to remove the sequence in question during a future rebroadcast, this was not the case when the program was actually rebroadcast in June 1956, despite its commitments; by mistake or negligence.

Walt Disney made this comment, which sounds a bit like a response from the shepherd to the shepherdess: “Mr. Douglas’ entire television appearance lasted 26 seconds, and it is inconceivable that the image of a man who has appeared so often in films, magazines and on television could be damaged on a television screen. television during this time.

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