Kurt Russell is the reason there’s penguins in Mary Poppins

If you're familiar with Kurt Russell as an action or horror movie star, you may be surprised to learn that he started out in Disney family movies.

Mary Poppins penguins

For those who know him as Snake Plissken, or MacReady, or Jack Burton, or Cash, or Wyatt Earp, or Stuntman Mike, or even as Peter Quill’s Dad – it may come as a surprise that Kurt Russell started out as a Disney movie child star. In fact, Russell’s first ever movie was co-starring with none other than Elvis Presley, a role that Russell would later play in Forrest Gump (well the voice, anyway).

 

Another surprising thing about Russell is his close personal friendship with the actual Walt Disney. Russell became something of a teen sensation, starring in Disney live-action movies in the 60s and early 70s, and receiving thousands of fan letters.

As a result, Russell got to know the company’s boss and founder, Walt Disney, unusually well. “He was a cool guy, great guy,” Russell remembers, in a 2016 interview with GQ. “He reminded me a lot of my grandfather.” Disney explained filmmaking to Russell, taking him around to all the departments in the studio and showing Russell what they each did. They would even play table tennis together.

Disney would show Russell forthcoming movies and ask his advice. Russell thinks he knows why; “I had no problem giving him my honest answer.” One of the movies Russell was shown was now-classic family movie Mary Poppins. Disney asked him what he thought. “I thought it was okay,” he told Disney. And Russell remembers Disney, there and then, getting a pen and paper, declaring “we need some penguins!” and summoning the animators.

“I have no doubt [that my opinion changed the final edit of Mary Poppins]. I have no doubt about that. There were other movies, too. I was a perfect audience for him in that regard. Now, is there any credit to be taken there? None, absolutely none. What I got to witness was a genius at work, okay? What I knew, in those instances…I knew my opinion mattered.”

There is a strange end to Russell’s Walt Disney experience. A little while after Disney’s death, Russell was invited into his personal office and was shown what was supposedly the very last thing Walt Disney had written. Just two words: Russell’s name. “I have no idea what he was thinking,” he says. “I always joke, ‘It took Kurt Russell to kill Walt Disney’.”

If you’re more familiar with Russell’s work in the likes of The Thing, or Escape from New York – check out our guides to the best horror movies and the best action movies.