January 29, 1915 – Birth of Disney Legend and Storyman Bill Peet
“As Bill Peet himself once said, ‘There were 40 people who were assigned to these jobs in the golden age of Disney animation. Now they were all being performed by one man…me, Bill Peet.’” – Neal Gabler, author of Walt Disney: Triumph of the American Imagination.
Bill Peet was born on January 29, 1915, in Grandview, Indiana. He showed promise as an artist at an early age, never imagining he could make a living out of bringing fanciful stories to life. “My favorite room in the house was the attic,” Peet wrote in his autobiography, “where I enjoyed filling fat five-cent tablets with a hodgepodge of drawings. Drawing became my number one hobby as soon as I could manipulate a crayon or pencil well enough to put my favorite things on paper…I must have drawn fairly well or I couldn’t have enjoyed it so much.” His drawing hobby, however, got him in trouble at school—he recalled that his margins were so full of drawings, he obviously didn’t pay a lot of attention to his teachers. During high school, he won a scholarship to the Herron Art Institute, now part of Indiana University.
In 1937, Peet moved out West to find work. Jobs were scarce as this was the middle of the Great Depression, but he heard that Disney was looking for artists, so he tried his luck. Peet was hired to be an in-betweener artist, which meant he assisted with the final drawings of characters for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Being an in-betweener meant one was at the bottom rung of the animating ladder, and Peet was very frustrated. He was driven, and he knew that his place was in the story department. He was given his chance about a year later, and the chances he got were highly regarded. One of his scenes was in Dumbo, where the baby elephant is bathed by his mother, and it is regarded as one the best early examples of Peet’s work. From that time, he was one of Disney’s main storymen. As animator Will Finn put it, “[Peet’s] fingerprints are all over the Disney classics as a storyman, from pretty much Pinocchio on.”
Whenever there was a story problem in the feature films, Walt Disney would bring it to Peet to fix. Peet’s ability to handle the story department helped free Disney’s interests when he began to diversify between the new medium of television, the parks, and the live action films. While Peet worked on story for films, starting on Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty, his best work was on the film One Hundred and One Dalmatians, where he was the sole developer of the story. Compared to the newer films, like Beauty and the Beast, where there were fifteen people working on the story and storyboards, Peet did all the work by himself. Disney Historian Brian Sibley noted that “Peet was a master storyteller, and he structured [One Hundred and One Dalmatians] to make it a story that is so focused, so controlled…that you follow the story with an effortlessness…so much so, in fact, that Dodie Smith wrote to Bill Peet and said that he had, in fact, improved on her book. Which is quite a complement when you think about it.”
There was always a contentious relationship between Disney and Peet. Peet brought in the 1938 novel The Sword in the Stone to Disney’s attention, and Disney asked Peet to write the screenplay. After Peet complied, Disney approved the film for production. The film, however, did not do very well, which caused Disney to become more critical of Peet’s methods. When Peet began to work on The Jungle Book, which he also had proposed to Disney, he read and reread the book, coming up with the story sketches. The version of the film Peet came up with, however, was not the kind of film Disney wanted to see. The two men, both highly imaginative and stubborn, could not reach an agreement on the film, and after twenty-seven years together, Peet left the studio and never returned.
After leaving Disney, Peet began a successful career as a children’s book author. “When it came time for the used book sales,” Peet wrote in his autobiography, “my illustrated [schoolbooks] were best sellers. The kids loved my drawings and I suppose those books could be considered the very first ones I ever illustrated for children.” He wrote over thirty-five stories, which were translated into several languages. In 1989, he released his autobiography, which won several awards, including being named a Caldecott Honor Book. Peet was inducted into the Disney Legends at the October 16, 1996 ceremony. Bill Peet died in 2002 at the age of 87.
Peet had an amazing ability to structure a story. While researching the sketches for One Hundred and One Dalmatians, animator Andreas Deja remarked that he “follow[ed] the sketches and you go, ‘Well, I’ll be…this is impossible. They didn’t change a thing.’ [The scenes] are exactly the way Bill Peet had envisioned it.” Coming from humble beginnings and rising through the ranks at a brisk pace, it’s interesting to see not only the talent that Peet had been born with, but how innate his instincts were when it came to story. Without Peet’s skills to carry on while Walt Disney’s interests diversified, there probably wouldn’t have been Disney animation in the ’60s, which led to the Disney Renaissance. Based on all of the influence Bill Peet had, one could argue that he helped keep the story of Disney animation alive for decades to come.