"Life is made up of meetings and partings; that is the way of it.” That line, delivered by Kermit the Frog in The Muppet Christmas Carol, always feels extra fitting this time of year. With another year about to be put behind us, it’s time to pay respects to those the Disney community lost in 2021. At Disney, the salutation “Goodbye” is seldom used, so for this year’s in memoriam, we’ll keep to the vernacular and just say “See ya real soon.”[UPDATE 12/31/21: After this year’s In Memoriam was published, Disney Legend Betty White passed away and was added to the post.]
One month shy of her 100th birthday, Disney Legend Betty White passed away on the final day of 2021. With decades of TV work in her repertoire prior to 1985, it was her role as Rose Nyland on Touchstone Television’s The Golden Girls that made her a TV legend. Her most memorable film role was in The Proposal, another Touchstone project that put her back in the spotlight. In addition to guest-starring on screen in multiple Disney and 20th Television projects over the years, she also lent her vocal talents to projects including Toy Story 4 and two episodes of The Simpsons. She became a Disney Legend in 2009 alongside her The Golden Girls cast mates, who had already passed away.
Disney Legend Ruthie Thompson was 111 years old when she passed away in October. As a young girl, she met two brothers with a fledgling animation studio on Kingswell Avenue, Walt and Roy Disney. Her interest in their work led to a job offer in the Ink & Paint Department, leading to a 40-year career as a scene planner. Starting on Walt Disney’s first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Ruthie stayed with the studio until her retirement in 1975 during production on The Rescuers. Ruthie Tompson became a Disney Legend in 2000 for her contributions to Disney Animation.
A case of being in the right place at the right time, Tommy Kirk was discovered accidentally while his brother auditioned for a play. He soon found himself as one of the biggest stars at Disney, beginning with The Hardy Boys serial on The Mickey Mouse Club, which paved the way to stardom in films like Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, Swiss Family Robinson, and The Absent-Minded Professor. He was inducted as a Disney Legend in 2006 alongside his Hardy Boys brother Tim Considine and Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran, who played his brother on screen so many times that people thought they were brothers in real life.
Oscar and Emmy winner Cloris Leachman had such an illustrious career that it’s easy to gloss over her Disney work. After finding stardom as Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, doors opened for lead roles in a trio of Disney comedies in the 1970s: The North Avenue Irregulars, Charley and the Angel, and Herbie Goes Bananas. She guest-starred in The Muppet Movie and was a member of Mel Brooks’ regular ensemble of players at 20th Century Fox, appearing in Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, and History of the World: Part 1. Two of her Emmys came from the 20th Television hit series Malcolm in the Middle.
Christopher Plummer won his first Oscar at the age of 82 after nearly 60 years in the business, which also included two Tonys and two Emmys. A Grammy shy of holding an EGOT, his most well-known role came in 1965 as Captain von Trapp in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music alongside Julie Andrews. For Disney, Plummer played John Adams Gates in the blockbuster film National Treasure and voiced the villain Charles F. Muntz in Pixar’s Oscar-winning animated film Up.
George Segal received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2017 for his work on TV while he was starring as “Pops” in The Goldbergs on ABC. Segal had his sights set on an acting career from a young age, studying the artform at Lee Strausburg’s Actors Studio before his big break in 1966. As part of the four-part ensemble in the film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, George Segal earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In addition to acting, he was a banjo player in several Dixieland bands.
Charles Grodin’s illustrious film career began with a non-speaking role in Walt Disney’s 1954 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at the age of 19. The Emmy-winner didn’t become a star until the early 70s in films like Catch-22, The Heartbreak Kid, and the 1976 remake of King Kong. He is best known to Muppets fans as the schmoozy Nicky Holiday in The Great Muppet Caper and a cameo in The Muppets at Walt Disney World. He was featured in the classic EPCOT attraction Cranium Command opposite Jon Lovitz as one half of Buzzy’s brain (pictured above). One of his final on screen roles was on the FX comedy series Louie.
Known as “The busiest actor in Hollywood," Ned Beatty played a role in more than 160 films. He became a star in 1972 when he took a role in Deliverance that many had turned down. Notable films include Superman: The Movie, Rudy, and 1941. For Disney, he voiced Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear in Toy Story 3 and appeared in several Disney and ABC TV projects, including Roseanne, Road to Avonlea, and Golden Palace. For 20th Century Fox, he appeared in Silver Streak, Prelude to a Kiss, The Last American Hero, and Back to School.
Like Cloris Leachman, Ed Asner rose to fame on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which helped him become the most awarded male performer in Emmys history with seven wins. During his illustrious career, he starred on screen in two Disney films (Gus and The Christmas Star) and guest starred on multiple TV projects, including Roseanne, Dinosaurs, The X-Files, The Middle, Modern Family, and most recently in Muppets Haunted Mansion. But perhaps the role that he will be best remembered for is the voice of Carl Fredricksen in Pixar’s Up.
Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II and his first hit Broadway project was as the lyricist for West Side Story, which was fittingly adapted again for the big screen this year by Steven Spielberg and 20th Century Studios. A remake of his second musical, Gypsy, is currently in development as a starring vehicle for Barbra Streisand by New Regency, which has a distribution deal with 20th Century Studios. The EGOT winner won his Oscar for the song “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" from Dick Tracy. His hit Broadway shows have included A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Sweeny Todd, and Into the Woods, which was adapted into a film by Disney in 2014.
Veteran voice actor Will Ryan had more than 100 screen credits to his name. His Disney career began in the 1983 short film Mickey’s Christmas Carol where he voiced Peg Leg Pete and Willie the Giant. Following that project, he became the official voice of Willie, lending his talents to the character until the end of his career in a recent episode of Mickey Mouse Funhouse. His voice touched numerous Disney projects during his career, including the animated classic The Little Mermaid, the Disney Afternoon series Ducktales and Adventures of the Gummi Bears, and the live-action preschool series Welcome to Pooh Corner.
Lucasfilm author and historian J.W. Rinzler is beloved by Star Wars fans for his trilogy of behind-the-scenes books published between 2007 and 2013. He served as the executive editor for LucasBooks for some time and also wrote books on several other films and franchises, including Indiana Jones, The Planet of the Apes, and Alien. For the screen, he wrote a two-part episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars titled “The Disappeared.”
Better known to Walt Disney World Guests as “The Hat Lady,” Irish born Pam Brody’s entertainment career brought her to EPCOT in 1992. During a career that spanned over 20 years, she delighted Guests at the Rose & Crown Pub at the United Kingdom Pavilion with her piano playing and singing. She officially retired in 2014, but came back to celebrate her 90th birthday in 2018 surrounded by family, friends, and fans.
Disney Legend Jim Cora’s career began in 1957 at Disneyland where Walt Disney personally helped him get into training and development. He played a key role in getting Cast Members prepared for the grand opening of Walt Disney World, after which he went on to become director of operations for Tokyo Disneyland and eventually the chairman of Disney International. He was influential in the master planning of Disneyland Paris and became a Disney Legend in 2005.
Disney Animator Dale Baer was mentored by Eric Larson and John Lounsbery, two of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men, when he joined the studio in 1971. During his early years at Disney, he provided animation on Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Robin Hood, The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon. After leaving Disney, Dale co-founded The Baer Animation Company, which did contract work on films including Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Beauty and the Beast. Dale eventually returned to Disney as a supervising animator on a number of projects including The Lion King and The Princess and the Frog, as well as visual development on Frozen and Zootopia. His final animation work will be seen in the upcoming 20th Century Studios film Bob’s Burgers: The Movie.
Nicknamed “Mr. Disneyland,” Ron Dominguez grew up on an orange grove in Anaheim that later became the site of Disneyland when his parents sold the land in 1954. As fate would have it, Ron would later work there shortly before the grand opening, working his way through every attraction in the park. By 1974, Ron Dominguez was promoted to as high a position as there was at Disneyland, Vice President. In 1990, he rose above even that position, becoming Executive Vice President, Walt Disney Attractions, West Coast. Ron Dominguez retired in 1994 and was celebrated with his own window on Main Street. He became a Disney Legend in 2000.
ESPN SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight reporter Pedro Gomez joined Disney’s sports network in 1997 after years of baseball reporting around the country. Among his many career highlights, he covered Major League Baseball’s return to Cuba in 2016, capable of giving the story a personal spin as the son of Cuban refugees.
Charles Boyer was the first full-time artist hired by Disneyland in 1960, initially assigned to paint portraits of Guests. With undeniable talent, he soon found himself in the marketing art department where he created artwork for flyers, brochures, magazine covers, and even lithographs sold in gift shops. Among his most famous pieces is a Norman Rockwell-inspired “Triple Self Portrait” where Mickey paints himself, but ends up with a portrait of Walt Disney. By the time he retired in 1999, Boyer was known as Disneyland’s master illustrator. He was inducted as a Disney Legend in 2005.
Samuel E. Wright made a splash as the voice of Sebastian in Disney’s 1989 animated classic The Little Mermaid. Throughout his career, he remained close to the musical crab, voicing the character in a spin-off animated series, two direct-to-video sequels, plus promotional albums, concert performances, and theme park experiences. Sebastian isn’t the only character Wright voiced for Disney, having also provided the voice for Kron in the animated film Dinosaur. On the stage, he originated the role of Mufasa in Disney’s Tony-winning production of The Lion King.
Nearly three generations of Disney fans know Mark Elliott’s voice. While he didn’t speak for a famous animated character, in a way he spoke for all of them as the announcer for Walt Disney Entertainment in North America. Most often heard on TV spots and ads on home video releases, Mark’s signature voice said things like “Coming soon to Disney DVD” and “Finally releasing from the Disney Vault.” Holding his position from 1983 to 2008, Mark’s work for Disney spanned multiple formats, including VHS, Betamax, Laserdisc, DVD, and the dawn of Blu-Ray.
Richard M. Bates founded The Walt Disney Company’s government relations office in 1991. In his role, he advocated for Disney’s positions and monitored the company’s political interests. He remained in his role of Senior Vice President of Government Relations for Disney until his passing.
If you’ve ever seen a photo of Walt Disney in Disneyland, odds are it was taken by Renie Bardeau. His Disney career began in Disneyland’s photography department in 1959 where he went on to become the park’s chief photographer, staying with the company nearly 40 years. Among the famous photos he snapped were Walt Disney casually walking underneath Sleeping Beauty Castle and the final photos of Walt Disney in the park from 1966, seated in a fire engine with Mickey Mouse. His window on Main Street is fittingly located above the Photo Supply Co., which he received shortly after his retirement in 1999.
As an NFL expert, John Madden became a sports commentator on a variety of networks, including ABC. Prior to his commentator career, he coached the Raiders to Super Bowl glory in 1976 and took the team to the playoffs 8 of his 10 coaching seasons. He embraced the intersection of sports and video games in 1988 with his popular John Madden Football series, which has remained an evergreen property for EA Sports. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
When Jim Henson launched The Muppet Show, Peter Harris was one of just two directors employed on the series, bringing to life 73 episodes of the classic variety show. His work with The Muppets didn’t stop there, with TV specials including The Muppets at Walt Disney World in his filmography. His final project for Jim Henson Productions was a predecessor to the popular Playhouse Disney series Bear in the Big Blue House titled Animal Show with Stinky and Jake.
When Laughing Place began over 20 years ago, one of the first friends that co-founders Doobie and Rebekah made through the site was Denise Owsley. With an incredibly pleasant personality, Denise became one of our first discussion board moderators and later became part of the customer service team for our former web store. An employed member of the team from 2005 to 2015, Denise was one of our longest-tenured employees ever. We sadly lost Denise this past December, but are forever thankful for the joy she brought to our lives and the Laughing Place community.