Allegations that the late Walt Disney was a secret FBI informant for more than 25 years captured Hollywood's attention in a big way Thursday, as executives debated whether it would soil his reputation.
The information about the man who created Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and whose squeaky-clean image came to symbolize family values, is contained in an unauthorized biography: "Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince," by Marc Eliot.
The book states that Disney, whose conservative politics were well known, served as a confidential source for the agency between 1940 and his death in 1966, providing information about actors, producers, directors, screenwriters and union activists suspected of political subversion.
The book contends that Disney was obsessed with the idea that he was adopted and that he exchanged information with then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in return for Hoover's help in trying to track down his real parents.
The New York Times reported Thursday that it had checked out material in the book against government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and said the information is "authentic."
"It strikes me as an insult to Walt Disney's reputation," said John Dreyer, a spokesman for the Walt Disney Co. "To me it is an attempt to make a quick buck by trashing a dead man's reputation."
Dreyer said that other authors have looked at the FBI documents and did not come to the same conclusions about Disney. "Did Walt meet J. Edgar Hoover? Yes. So did (former President) Ronald Reagan and (the late U.S. Senator) George Murphy," Dreyer added. "They all got branded with the same thing." As for the allegation that Disney was obsessed with finding his real parents, Dreyer said "that is terribly misguided amateur psychology."
Some Hollywood insiders Thursday said they believe that the allegations could take the luster off Disney, but have no impact on the corporation he left behind.
"That's ancient history," one studio executive said. "The world has changed. It has nothing to do with the current group at Disney. But (the disclosures) might dim his luster as as saint a little bit. Americans don't snitch on their friends."