William Bartlett Peet
January 29, 1915
|Died||May 11, 2002 (aged 87)|
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills, California|
|Education||Herron School of Art and Design|
|Occupation||Writer, screenwriter, illustrator, artist, storyboard artist|
|Employer||Walt Disney Animation Studios (1937-1964)|
Peet joined Disney in 1937 and worked first on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) near the end of its production. Progressively, his involvement in the Disney studio's animated feature films and shorts increased, and he remained there until early in the development of The Jungle Book (1967). A row with Walt Disney over the direction of the project led to a permanent personal break.
Peet's subsequent career was as a writer and illustrator of numerous children's books, including Capyboppy (1966), The Wump World (1970), The Whingdingdilly (1970), The Ant and the Elephant (1972), and Cyrus the Unsinkable Serpent (1975).
According to his autobiography, Peet's happiest childhood times were the years following the First World War - years during which his father abandoned the family. During that period Peet lived with his mother and brothers on the outskirts of Indianapolis, in a household run by his maternal grandmother.
Animals were always a love of Peet's. He and his friends would go traipsing through the woods looking for frogs, tadpoles, and minnows. Most of his adventures as a boy to catch animals were in the hope that he could capture them and sketch them. These years laid the groundwork for the themes, repeated in his books, of unkindness in the animal kingdom - and the grim costs of human progress: "It has always been difficult for me to accept nature's cruel ways of keeping a balance among the animals - all the savagery and suffering," he wrote about the frog and snakes he chased in his local creek. "Yet nature's merciless ways were never more cruel than the slow, silent death caused by the poisonous waste spilling from pipes down into the creek... where dead fish floated belly up and a nauseating stench filled the air."
Often, instead of doing lessons, Peet would draw the margins of his textbooks--which were very popular for their added illustrations when he sold them back.
The young Peet would also sneak into greeting parties at the train station, just for the chance to see the train's mechanical workings close-up. As a teen, he would try to sketch the circus big top, but he was always in the way of the set up crew. He memorized the scene and would reconstruct it from memory.
After ten years of absence, Peet's father returned to the household and, according to Peet, brought with him conflict and strife - demanding that Peet's mother provide money to underwrite a string of failed ventures as a traveling salesman. This chapter culminated in the death of Peet's grandmother, which Peet implied was in part caused by the stress and misery his father caused. The home where the family lived was sold, and Peet's blissful young years ended.
It was about this time Peet entered into Arsenal Technical High School. At first, he had little interest in pursuing a career as an artist. However, after failing all his classes but physical education, he followed the advice of a friend and took some art classes. Peet did extremely well and experimented with a broad range of media. He eventually received a scholarship to the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, which he attended for three years. In the first class, Bill found himself very interested in a girl who sat in the front row. That girl, Margaret Brunst, became his wife in 1937.
Peet took quite a few painting classes that first year, and he admitted his paintings were always somewhat macabre. "I seemed to be attracted to the gloomy side of things, or the sordid," he wrote. "No vases of flowers or water lilies for me." His favorite subjects were grizzled old men, "perfected with age, like a gnarled oak tree." Another favorite subject was the circus--but always the assembly of the tent cities, never the show itself.
Following college, Peet sent off some of his cartoon action sketches after hearing that the Disney Studio was hiring artists for their animated films. He was subsequently asked to come to try-outs. He trekked across the country to Los Angeles and participated in a one-month audition process; only three of fifteen survived the tryouts, and were rewarded with work as "in-betweeners" (making up the frames between the key drawings) on the Donald Duck shorts. He found the work somewhat tedious. It was at this time Disney was working on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which Hollywood skeptics would be a failure. After Snow White had become a triumphant success, Peet sent character sketches for Pinocchio to Disney's production team. Before the verdict on his designs had come back, Peet felt like he'd had enough, and went screaming out of the studio, "No more ducks!" Fortuitously, he came back the next day to pick up his jacket and found an envelope, informing him he had been promoted to the story department.
Peet then officially began working as a sketch artist, putting the words of a story man into pictures on the film. Peet's first encounter with Walt Disney directly was at this time, when Disney reviewed the storyboards Peet had put together. Even though both his boards were eventually cut from the film, Peet continued to work on Pinocchio for another year and a half. After that period, Peet worked on Fantasia and Dumbo. When World War II broke out, Disney halted normal production, and contributed to the war effort making propaganda films. Peet helped here as well but received his big break after the war was over. His work was so impressive to Walt that he made him a fully fledged story man who also handled the sketching end of character design.
Peet started to paint again at this time, but soon found he had lost touch with the brush. Fine art had changed dramatically during the years Peet had been at Disney; abstractionism was in vogue and Peet's realistic paintings were out of date. He attempted editorial cartoons but failed there as well. Peet decided to continue working at Disney, where he developed a few short cartoons and worked on the feature films of the period. At this point, he was working very closely with Walt Disney; Peet respected Disney's creative genius but found him to be a sometimes difficult man. A large part of his autobiography is dedicated to his dealings with Disney over the years. Peet described the Disney studio as a "brutal" place, rife with rivalries and jealousy. After successes developing short stories for the company, Peet had his first book published, Hubert's Hair-Raising Adventure.
Although Walt Disney himself was not doing any animation by this time, he was in charge of the major decisions on the artistic side. He reviewed all the work and gave it the final go-ahead. As they were both strong-willed and passionately creative men, Peet and Disney quarreled frequently about parts in the films such as the dancing/romance scene in Sleeping Beauty. Peet left the company on January 29, 1964, which was his 49th birthday, following an especially heated argument with Walt on The Jungle Book.
Post-Disney, Peet turned his attention to writing and illustrating children's books. Peet developed many of his ideas from bedtime stories he had told his children. Much of the success Peet's stories have enjoyed is due to the memorable themes they contain: trying when there's not much obvious hope, not allowing taunting of others to prevent individual success, finding compromise in solutions and others. Unlike most other children's authors, Peet did not dumb down the vocabulary of his stories but included enough context to make the meaning of difficult words obvious. All of his books published by Houghton Mifflin Company remain actively in print.
In 2015, Walt Disney Animation Studios produced a cartoon short for the 101 Dalmatians Diamond Edition Blu-ray release entitled The Further Adventures of Thunderbolt as a bonus feature, based on Peet's early drafts of the "Thunderbolt the Wonder Dog" sequence which follows the events after Thunderbolt and Dirty Dawson start fighting in the river.
Justin Marks, who wrote the screenplay for Disney's 2016 live-action Jungle Book film directed by Jon Favreau, had commented that he plans to incorporate elements from Peet's rejected screenplay of the original animated classic into the former film's upcoming sequel:
In the second film, the idea is to go further through the Kipling but also go into some of the Disney resources from the '67 film that maybe didn't get to see the light of day in the first film. If you look back to Bill Peet's work on the original film, some of which was thrown out by Walt Disney, Jon [Favreau] and I really dove deep into the Disney archives to see some of the ideas. We were like, 'Wait, that's a great idea. We really need that in the film.' So we've built it out like that."-- Justin Marks