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Walt Disney’s chain-smoking habit that new film 'Saving Mr Banks' hides from view


Walt Disney was known to be an inveterate chain smoker, a habit which led to the lung cancer that would eventually kill him. Yet thanks to his own studio’s ban on screen smoking, a new film about the late Hollywood mogul will not depict him lighting up once.

Tom Hanks plays Disney in Saving Mr Banks, which is due for release in the UK later this month, and chronicles the animator and producer’s relationship with Mary Poppins author P L Travers, during the production of the 1964 movie adaptation of her book.

Saving Mr Banks is produced by the Disney company, which has a studio-wide policy forbidding smoking on film. Speaking after a screening of the film at the Napa Valley Film Festival this weekend, its producer Alison Owen and director John Lee Hancock admitted they were nervous about working with the entertainment giant on a film about its founder, and feared that executives would attempt to control the picture.

In fact, the studio made only one big request. “They told us there could be no smoking,” Ms Owens said.

The company’s blanket ban on lit cigarettes in its films came into effect in 2007, when Bob Iger, its chairman and CEO, stated: “We expect that depictions of cigarette smoking in future Disney-branded films will be non-existent.”

Saving Mr Banks does at least feature an unlit cigarette: in one scene, Disney is seen stubbing it out as Travers, played by Emma Thompson, enters his office. The cigarette itself is not visible, however, and nor is its smoke. Disney is also seen swearing and sipping Scotch Mist, his cocktail of choice.

Born in 1901, Disney took up smoking as an ambulance driver in France during the First World War. He took great care never to smoke around children, but was said to suffer from an incessant cough.

His favourite brand of cigarettes was Lucky Strike, and he also smoked a pipe. In 1955 he opened a tobacconist on Disneyland’s Main Street, which closed in 1991, though its traditional “cigar store Indian” still stands on the pavement outside the location.

Saving Mr Banks is considered a strong Oscar contender in a crowded field, especially given its subject matter. The two winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture – The Artist in 2012, and Argo in 2013 – both revolved around the film industry, while Hanks and Thompson already have three acting Oscars between them, though Hanks is also tipped for a nomination for his performance in the piracy thriller Captain Phillips.

The title of the film refers to the father of the family in the children’s book series about a magical nanny; Mr Banks was inspired by Travers’ own father. Disney personally pursued the Australian-born British author for 20 years to win the film rights to Mary Poppins. She finally agreed to a meeting at the studio’s lot in Burbank, California, in 1961, where the mogul eventually charmed her into submission. Yet she continued to hamper production with odd requests, at one point demanding the colour red be cut from the film altogether.

Released in 1964, Mary Poppins went on to become the most successful Disney film of the decade. Disney himself had his left lung removed shortly after its release, and died from complications due to lung cancer in December 1966, aged 65.