Bill Peet

The Disney studio's greatest storyteller
Click to follow
The Independent Online

William Bartlett Peet, writer and illustrator: born Grandview, Indiana 29 January 1915; married 1938 Margaret Brunst (one son, and one son deceased); died Studio City, California 11 May 2002.

If any one man can be claimed to have been Walt Disney's best storyteller (beside Disney himself, of course), that man was Bill Peet. For 27 years, Peet wrote and drew storyboards for the studio – and then went on to become an award-winning children's author and illustrator.

William Bartlett Peet's beginnings were humble: born and raised in Indiana, he won a scholarship to the John Herron Art Institute there, before working as a designer for a greetings card company. In 1937, he was taken on by the Disney studio as an apprentice animator and found himself drawing dwarfs on the first ever full-length cartoon film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Peet's job was as an "in-betweener", drawing the panels in-between the main ones, which were done by the senior animators. It was a restrictive role for an ambitious artist, and conditions were tough: the hours were long with no overtime or sick pay, and pay for the lower ranks was low indeed ("some of the in-betweeners were only making $16 a week", Peet said later). Yet for a few years the lure of Disney, the grandest name in the cartoon business, was sufficient to overcome such drawbacks.

Peet, meanwhile, was submitting story ideas and the powers- that-be, in dire need of new talent, assigned him to the story department. This landed him at the heart of the studio's creative process: all the Disney cartoons, whether full-length ("feature films") or "shorts", began life as scenarios, to be developed by artists into a series of "storyboards", sketches breaking down the story for the animators. These artists were, naturally enough, known as "storymen". Peet's rapid promotion led him to labour as a sketch artist for two years on Pinocchio (1940), Disney's next feature film, only to receive no credit on screen.

However, his expressive sketches on Dumbo (1941), bursting with ideas and character, caught the eye of Walt Disney himself, and a stormy but productive relationship was born. Peet (briefly credited as Peed) was not a yes-man: if a scene didn't work, he was one of the very few to argue with the boss. Disney's say was normally final. It is a measure of his respect for Peet's abilities that he tolerated these heated disputes over story matters, even to the extent of keeping Peet on after the acrimonious strike of 1941, despite Peet's being on the wrong side of the picket line (most of the strikers were sacked). Disney, not an easy man to work for, even went so far as to tell Peet outright, "If I were you, Bill, I wouldn't be working for me."

Over two decades later Peet was to follow Disney's advice after one argument too many, but in the intervening years his stature among his colleagues grew, both for his abilities as a writer and as a gifted cartoonist. His storytelling influence and character design work is especially marked on films like Song of the South (1946), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), and, as Disney's own day-to-day involvement with the productions lessened, Peet's role increased.

Widely regarded as the studio's greatest storyman after Disney himself, Peet was the obvious choice to adapt Dodie Smith's novel 101 Dalmatians for the big screen, thus becoming the first sole writer of a Disney animated feature. In addition to writing the screenplay, he drew all the storyboards, auditioned voices for the soundtrack and directed the recording of the dialogue. 101 Dalmatians, released in 1961, was a tour de force and Peet's personal favourite of all the films he worked on, yet, in a cruel echo of earlier times, studio politics ensured that Peet's name was not listed in the credits.

Despite this, he repeated the process on The Sword in the Stone two years later, but his next project for Disney – The Jungle Book – was to be his last: accumulated resentments over the way he had been treated, along with unhappiness at changes made to his vision of the film after he had left it, boiled over. Unwilling to work in what he termed the "assembly line" process of the studio any more, he quit in 1964 to become a full-time writer of children's fiction. He never returned to animation.

But what began as a sideline for him, with a handful of titles to his name, blossomed into a second, equally successful career: between 1959, with the publication of his first storybook, Hubert's Hair-Raising Adventure, and 1990, with his last, Cock-a-Doodle Dudley, he wrote and illustrated 34 children's books, including Chester the Worldly Pig (1965), Huge Harold (1961) and Whingdingdilly (1970). Highly popular with their intended readers, they embodied Peet's fervent belief that books for kids should be entertaining, and garnered him more than a dozen awards for children's literature.

However, he had one item of adult literature left in him: in 1989, in an attempt to set the record straight after what he regarded as persistent misrepresentation of his part in the studio's success by the string of authorised volumes, he published Bill Peet: an autobiography. As he put it, "There's life after Disney."

Alan Woollcombe

Comments