It's a list of ten of Disney's best Live Action Villains from the classic era
For purposes of my book and blog, I define Disney's classic era as 1923 - 1983, roughly the time period that Walt and his closest associates ran the company. The modern era starts with Michael Eisner and his crew, just after Walt's son-in-law left his leadership position at Disney.
Disney has a rogues gallery of great villains, not all of them animated.
The cartoon bad guys got a three decade jump on their live action counterparts, but the tally was quickly matched.
Here now are ten of the most fearsome and conniving live action Disney Villains of the classic era (the odd part is that they are all male - I tried to include a female, but there were only two worth mentioning and just missed the cut - 8 are British, and 6 of the ten are pictured wearing hats of some sort):
Captain Nemo (James Mason)
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954)
"20,000 Leagues Under The Sea" was Walt's gamble on a big budget science fiction picture. He spared no expense, especially with the casting. Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas were all major stars when they took the roles of the three protagonists in this adaptation of Jules Verne's classic novel. No film works without a great villain, however, and Disney found the perfect man for the job.
James Mason was not as well known to American audiences as his co-stars, having appeared in larger roles in just two previous Hollywood films ("Julius Caesar" and "A Star Is Born.") His imperious yet smooth voice and the aristocratic way he carried himself was a natural fit for Captain Nemo.
I call Nemo a villain because he essentially holds the three castaways hostage on his prototype nuclear submarine, The Nautilus, and has a great dislike for Douglas' character (who he condemns to death before a change of heart) but he is also a misunderstood and sympathetic character.
At first, Nemo is chilling, cold and ruthless and seems to care little about the lives or fate of people who live above the surface of the ocean. He's easy to hate. As the story develops, we realize that Nemo is actually a scientific genius, twisted to madness by the murders of his wife and child at the hands of a government trying to force him to reveal the secrets of nuclear power (pretty dark stuff for a Disney film.)
Nemo redeems himself just before his death, and he sinks to a watery grave with his crew as the film closes, but not before delivering his inspiring last words: "There is hope for the future. And when the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass. In God's good time."
James Mason went on to have a distinguished career in Hollywood, making over 100 film appearances and being nominated for three Academy Awards. To many fans, however, he will always be known as Captain Nemo.
Peter Thorndyke (David Tomlinson)
The Love Bug (1968)
Peter Thorndyke, like Banks, is an upper crust British businessman, in this case a car dealer in San Francisco rather than a banker in London. He sells a broken down Volkswagen Beetle to a down on his luck race car driver and is then mortified when the humble bug magically comes to life and starts to beat him in races. (Thorndyke is, improbably, a master race car driver on the California circuit.)
When legitimate offers to buy the car (named Herbie) don't work, Thorndyke turns to underhanded methods. His most nefarious attempt at sabotage is to literally get the car drunk by filling it with Irish whiskey. Nothing about this man screams "I have a conscience." He's the type that would stoop to any means to get what he wants. Even little kids in the audience picked up on this and shared the impulse to boo and hiss Thorndyke every time he appeared on screen.
In the end, Peter Thorndyke is taken down a few pegs, as he foolishly wagers his dealership in the climactic race. When he is beaten by Herbie, Thorndyke is then forced to make ends meet as a lowly mechanic at the business he formerly owned.
So as not to leave a negative impression on his fans, Tomlinson took one last role in a Disney film, that of the bumbling con artist warlock in 1971's "Bedknobs and Broomsticks."
Dillinger/Sark/MCP (David Warner)
British character actor David Warner did just that in 1982's groundbreaking sci-fi film "Tron."
Warner had done mostly horror films and a few mini-series (usually cast as a villain or Nazi) before assuming the role of Edward Dillinger, head of Encom, a computer programming company. Right from the start we see that Dillinger is corrupt, as he rose to power on the strength of a program he stole from Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) the hero of the picture. Dillinger schemes to have Flynn, who is on the trail of evidence that would prove the thievery, locked out of the company and its mainframe.
In strange twist, Flynn is beamed inside the computer where he joins up with a rogue program named Tron to do battle with Dillinger's digital alter ego, Sark. Compared to Sark, Dillinger looks like Mr. Rogers.
As the tyrant of this fantastic computer generated world, Sark revels in the mayhem he can cause by having programs battle and kill (or de-rez) each other. He is one of the meanest and most sadistic characters ever to appear in a Disney film (even one of the characters in the movie remarks on how much Sark seems to enjoy others pain.) Tron, Flynn and their cohorts manage to evade Sark and make it to the Master Control Program, which is keeping the tight lock on all information going in or out. Their aim is to destroy it and open the flow once again. Sark merges with MCP in a desperate effort to help the machine fight them off. Tron prevails, and both MCP and Sark are shattered into digital bits, freeing all programs.
Back in the real world, Flynn finally gets the access he needs to the files proving Dillinger stole his work. We are shown a scene of Dillinger's face as he realizes that he is in big trouble, but never get to see him put in jail. The film then tells us that Flynn was made CEO of the company.
Warner's malevolent performance was one of the highlights of the original Tron. Sadly, he was not included in the sequel, 2010's "Tron: Legacy" although Irish actor Cillian Murphy, best known for playing the Scarecrow in "Batman Begins", appears in an uncredited role as Edward Dillinger, Jr., head of software design for the 21st Century version of Encom. If a second sequel is made, this has raised hopes that Dillinger Sr. (and possibly even Sark) might make a triumphant return.
Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn)
The Absent Minded Professor (1961)
Keenan Wynn, son of Disney Legend Ed Wynn, began playing greedy banker Alonzo Hawk in "The Absent Minded Professor" and then reprised the role in the sequel, "Son of Flubber." Disney didn't want to let a good character go to waste, so they transplanted him from Medfield to San Francisco in 1974's "Herbie Rides Again."
In all three films, Hawk is not the traditional villain in the sense that he wants to kill or maim anyone, he's more of the evil businessman (a type that has gained some cache in Hollywood the last few years.) Hawk's goal is to make as much money as he possibly can, even if it means some people will be tossed out on the street and jobs will be lost. He is a shark with no heart. Wynn played him effortlessly, with an occasional slight grin to let us know that Hawk was human after all.
This modern day Scrooge (without the redemption scene - come to think of it he's more like Mr. Potter in the classic film "It's a Wonderful Life") is brought down a peg at the end of each film by the heroes he tormented and badgered. Oh, if it were only that easy to get banks off one's back.
Wynn played similar characters in "The Snowball Express" and "The Shaggy D.A." Oddly, they were not named Alonzo Hawk, though they could easily have been his twin.
Doc Terminus (Jim Dale)
Pete's Dragon (1977)
Accompanied by his hapless sidekick Hoagy, Terminus moves from one sleepy New England fishing town to another in search of more villagers to fleece. He winds up in Passamaquoddy, where he learns of the existence of a dragon (named Elliot) and seeks it out so that he can kill it and use the body parts for powerful elixirs.
As played by Jim Dale, Terminus is another bad guy who smiles at you in the front while stabbing you in the back. Most people never see what's coming, though he quickly wears out his welcome. (It's established early in the film that Terminus has pulled his schemes on these people before and only through a slick musical presentation does he avoid being strung up by them.) For many children of a certain age (myself included) Doc Terminus served as the introduction of the nightmarish concept that someone can be as pleasant as punch on the outside yet secretly be conniving and dastardly on the inside.
Terminus isn't even the scariest villain in the film. That distinction goes to Academy Award winner Shelly Winters, who appears in "Pete's Dragon" as Lena Gogan, a backwoods foster parent who abuses young Pete (the boy at the center of the story, who runs away from her, accompanied by his giant dragon) and sets out to bring the boy back so that he can resume being her personal slave. Unfortunately, Winters' appearances are limited to the beginning and ending of the film, so she doesn't take prominence enough to make the list.
Dale's flim flam man is like the live action version of Pinocchio's sly fox J. Worthington Foulfellow (right down to the dopey sidekick) as he tries to ingratiate himself with Pete to woo the dragon from him. He even offers to buy Elliot from Pete, but is rebuked. Finally, Terminus teams up with the truly evil Ma Gogan and tries to shoot the dragon with a harpoon, but winds up launching himself through the roof.
Yes, it's a cartoonish role and a cartoonish end, but Doc Terminus made his mark on the list of unforgettable live action Disney villains. (Dale would return, less memorably, to Disney villainy as Sir Mordred in 1979's "Unidentified Flying Oddball, or The Spaceman and King Arthur.")
Long John Silver (Robert Newton)
Silver commits some horrible acts in "Treasure Island" yet he has a soft spot for young Jim Hawkins and looks out for him. He also has a strong sense of loyalty to the crew members that have stood by him. unfortunately, he also harbors a murderous streak and is not one to be crossed.
As was the case with Captain Nemo a few years later, Disney found the perfect actor to bring this classic literary character to life.
Some of them had been around before, but Robert Newton enhanced, embellished and cemented many of the stereotypical "pirate" mannerisms we are familiar with today. It was Newton's choice to play Long John Silver with a raspy voice, fractured syntax, highlands burr, and trilling of the R sound (aaargh, matey!) The parrot, the squinting, the disheveled look and other hallmarks were also chosen in part by Newton.
Young boys of the 1950's, in particular, were drawn to Long John Silver. The duality of the character and his roguish nature made him an icon, paving the way for pop culture swashbucklers to follow, including the denizens of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean rides and films.
Newton never played another role for Disney, but his portrayal of the main villain in the first ever Disney live action picture earned him the coveted status of official Disney Legend.
In what's both a blessing and a curse for an actor, Robert Newton was never quite able to shake the part of Long John Silver. Another motion picture company continued the adventures of Long John Silver, which Newton played in both a film and television series, indelibly cementing him as one of the greatest screen villains of all time.
Apple Jack Arno (Caesar Romero)
The Dexter Reilly Trilogy (1969 - 1975)
Beginning with "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes" in 1969, Romero played Apple Jack (AJ) Arno, the foil to Kurt Russell's Dexter Reilly in three very popular films.
Arno was a crook through and through, a small time gangster operating in Disney's de facto town of Medfield. In the first film, Arno donates a computer to the college, which contains all of his illegal secrets. When Reilly has those secrets accidentally downloaded into his brain, Arno has him kidnapped, with plans to kill him. In the end, Dexter is saved and Arno is exposed as a crook.
The second film 1972's "Now You See Him, Now You Don't" saw Arno as the owner of Medfield College's mortgage (Huh?) Once again, Reilly is involved with one of Arno's schemes, as he invents an invisibility spray that Arno steals and uses to rob a bank. Dexter once again saves the day, getting Arno arrested and breaking up his plot to turn Medfield College's property into a casino and hotel.
"The Strongest Man In The World" is the series finale, and Arno has been released from prison in time to kidnap and torture Dexter Reilly's best friend in order to obtain a secret formula for super strength. For the third time in as many films, Reilly outwits Arno and has him sent off to prison.
Now those crimes (kidnap, torture, robbery, murder) might seem like something out of a Scorcese movie, but this was Disney villainy 101. A.J. Arno is so comically tame and non threatening that he and his gang might as well have been wearing black masks and carrying sacks with dollar signs on them. In the hands of any other actor, this role might have drifted into parody, but Romero gave it some gravitas and he still seems scary in a goofy way.
AJ Arno was one of the first Disney live action villains to inhabit the 1960's/70's pop era and use modern slang, which makes him a groovy addition to the list.
Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
Mr. Dark, memorably played by Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce, is a stand in for the Devil himself. Enigmatic yet alluring, Dark blows into a small midwestern town with his traveling carnival and proceeds to corrupt the souls of the residents using promises of wish fulfillment.
Two little boys stumble onto the carnival's mysterious secret and are then targeted by Mr. Dark.
The rest of the film deals with the boys attempts to escape the clutches of Mr. Dark and his minions. All sorts of carnival tricks are used to tempt and trick them and Mr. Dark rarely loses his temper. Like his fellow Welshman Anthony Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs", Pryce realized that still calm, unblinking stares and long quiet moments can sometimes be even more frightening than blood, mayhem and gore.
Mr. Dark is the ideal boogeyman. He radiates charm and warmth, but is actually quite cold and deadly. His single minded pursuit of the two boys is chilling. Many of the camera angles and props used to accentuate Mr. Dark are downright creepy.
The film was a dud at the box office, but it was Disney's first attempt at a straight horror film (tame as it might be.) Mr. Dark is less well known that Freddy Krueger (a part turned down by - incidentally - Sark himself, David Warner) Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, and might have a lower body count, yet he can stand toe to toe with any villain, Disney or not.
Aristotle Bolt & Lucas Deranian
(Ray Milland & Donald Pleasence)
Escape To Witch Mountain (1975)
Two villains for the price of one.
In "Escape To Witch Mountain" young children with ESP and strange powers are hounded and terrorized by two middle aged wealthy men. Lucas Deranian, played by Donald Pleasence, is a lawyer for Aristotle Bolt, played by Academy Award winner Ray Milland.
Deranian is saved by the two siblings, Tia and Tony, when they have a premonition of an accident about to befall him. As a token of gratitude, Deranian invites the kids, who are orphans, to the home of his employer, Bolt. He pretends to be their long lost Uncle.
All is well at first, as Tony and Tia enjoy comforts they never had. Bolt's mansion is a palace, but it soon becomes a prison when he reveals that he knows about their special powers and wants to use them for evil purposes. If the brother and sister don't agree, then they are to be destroyed.
The two children escape Bolt's lair, but are pursued doggedly by Bolt and Deranian. The climax of the film takes place on the title mountain (though no actual witches are involved.) The villains use a helicopter to try to catch the kids, but Tony and Tia use their powers to thwart them. Eventually the children, who discover they are really aliens from another planet, reach their spacecraft and set off for their home galaxy, leaving a fuming Bolt and Deranian in the dust.
A huge hit when it was released, "Witch Mountain" spawned a sequel (1978's "Return To Witch Mountain") that also featured two villains, played by Bette Davis and Christopher Lee. It sounds like that would be a winning pair, but they just didn't capture the menace and chemistry that Milland and Pleasance brought.
Milland made a few appearances on screen after that film, but it was Pleasence, who had appeared as one of the most memorable Bond villains, whose career took off. He was cast in, among others, classic roles in the "Halloween" series and in "Escape From New York" co-starring Disney Legend Kurt Russell.
Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell)
The Black Hole (1979)
Unfortunately, he comes across more like Grand Moff Tarkin (If you don't know the reference, Tarkin was "Star Wars'" paper pushing bland politician with no qualms about committing murder to achieve his goals, as opposed to Vader's darker, more charismatic sorcerer.)
Nevertheless, Reinhardt closes out our list because he is a murderous megalomaniac. As played by Oscar winner Maximillian Schell, this wide eyed, wild coiffed madman schemes to drag his ship and his crew right through one of the most dangerous places in deep space, a black hole.
Discovered onboard the wreckage of his spaceship, the Cygnus, Reinhardt - like Captain Nemo - is a twisted scientest and commander. His crew, unlike Nemo's are lobotomized slaves and are loyal to him only because he's programmed them that way.
Reinhardt's paranoia and insanity prevent him from rising to the level of Darth Vader and other super villains, but he is dangerous nonetheless.
In the end, Reinhardt is killed and merged with his evil robot Maximillian. In a truly weird scene, as the ship courses through the black hole, Reinhardt is cast out into space to spend eternity locked together with arms raised on a mountain overlooking a Disney version of Hell.
Seems like all villains wind up in this position one way or another.