With the Walt Disney Company turning 100 this year, it’s time to look back at some of the more bizarre stories that have happened at Disney since its inception. One persistent rumor about Walt Disney himself is that his dying words were “Kurt Russell.” The reality of the situation is a little more complicated.
First, the facts. Walt Disney was diagnosed with cancer in November of 1966. He passed away less than a month later, on December 15, at 65. Disney was a workaholic and continued to go to the office until the end, having his hand in a number of different projects before his death.
Kurt Russell and Walt Disney did know each other. The future Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2 (2017) was only 15 when Disney died. He worked on several Disney Studio movies and had just finished Follow Me, Boys! (1966). The two frequently discussed films and other ideas that Walt wanted to bounce off a younger ear.
Russell told author Amy Boothe Green in 1999 for her biography Remembering Walt:
Sometimes Disney would come down to the set and ask ‘Do you want to see part of a movie that’s being put together?’
Before his death, Walt told people he saw a “great acting future” for Russell. Disney knew talent when he saw it. The 71-year-old Russell has been in dozens of films in a career spanning seven decades.
After Disney died, his office was closed, and no one was allowed in. In 1970, Disney archivist Dave Smith was tasked with cataloging everything Walt Disney left in his office. What Dave Smith found has become the source of the legend that the last thing on Walt’s mind was, in fact, Kurt Russell.
There was a piece of paper Walt had scribbled several projects in development, and the last legible name Walt wrote was “Kurt Russell.” So, the last thing on Disney’s mind before he went to the hospital was the young actor and a possible project he could star in.
No one, not even Russell, knows precisely what project Walt was thinking about, and no one will ever know, but the lore continues. Technically speaking, “Kurt Russell” was not Walt Disney’s last words, but the young actor was one of the previous people Walt thought about while working for the Walt Disney Company.
In 2017, just before the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2 was released, Director James Gunn got a tour of Walt’s former office and could see the last note that Disney wrote before his death.
Gunn told the Washington Post:
They love their lore– all the Disney guys– and they kind of told me the whole story. I’ve seen that sheet on this desk, that spells ‘Kirt Russell.’ It isn’t exactly a true story, that this was the last thing Disney wrote in his office. I talked to Kurt about it; he loves the story. I believed it. I think Kurt believes in it and (Marvel Studio Head) Kevin Feige believes it.
We know that Disney struggled with spelling; he spelled Russell’s first name with an “I” instead of a “U,” and Walt continued to work at the job he loved until he was physically unable to do so.
So, the truth is, in fact, complicated. And when the myth surpasses the truth, print the legend. And aren’t most things about Walt Disney legends?