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Should Disney have made “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made” instead of “Muppets Most Wanted” ?



As its box office totals continue to trickle in, you just know that there have to be people  back in Burbank who are disappointed with the way “Muppets Most Wanted” performed this past weekend. Racking up just an estimated $16.5 million in ticket sales. Which doesn’t compare all that well with the $29 million that “The Muppets ” earned over the 2011 Thanksgiving weekend.

So what exactly happened here? Was it just as Kermit & Fozzie musically foretold in “Muppets Most Wanted” ‘s opening number that ” … the sequel’s never quite as good” ?

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To be honest, no. If you talk with industry insiders, they’ll flat-out tell you that “Muppets Most Wanted” box office take was seriously undercut by a surprising strong “Mr. Peabody & Sherman.” Three weekends into its domestic release, this DreamWorks Animation production sold an estimated $11.7 million worth of tickets. Which meant that the family-friendly “Mr. Peabody” took an over-sized bite out of the audience that Disney had hoped would want to go see “Muppets Most Wanted” instead.

That said, there are also those at the studio who say that — as soon as Jason Segel made it clear that he didn’t really want to be part of a follow-up to “The Muppets” — Disney should have had the smarts to go in another direction with this production. Given that Segel not only starred in the 2011 Walt Disney Pictures release, Jason also executive-produced “The Muppets” as well co-wrote that movie’s screenplay with Nicholas Stoller … Well, Segel’s absence was obviously going to be felt. Especially since “Muppets Most Wanted” was being sold as a direct sequel to “The Muppets.”

Jason Segel goes over “The Muppets” screenplay with Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“So what should have the Mouse made instead of ‘Muppets Most Wanted?,” you ask. Well, Disney could have always circled back on a script that Jim Henson himself had always wanted to shoot with Kermit & Co. A screenplay that Frank Oz said ” … would be a lot of fun to do.” In fact, as recently as late 2005 / early 2006, Dick Cook — the then-Chairman of Walt Disney Studios — was still trying to get this Muppet movie made.

“And what project was this?,” you query. A film that was supposedly so funny that — even in storyboard form — it reportedly caused Jim Henson and screenwriter Jerry Juhl to giggle uncontrollably: “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made.”

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And what exactly was the storyline of this proposed Muppet movie?  To give you the answer to that question, I’m going to have to turn to that national bestseller, Brian Jay Jones‘ “Jim Henson: The Biography ” (Ballantine Books, September 2003). And to hear Jones tell this tale, the origins of “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made” can actually be traced back to a Henson associates staff meeting in early 1987. Where Oz had been grousing …

… to Jim and Juhl about the growing costs of (many of the future projects that they hoped to produce) at Henson Associates. If they were going to make another Muppet film, Oz said testily, they would have to “figure out a way to do a really low-budget kind of thing.” That was all Juhl needed. Hunching over his Macintosh computer in his home office in California, he quickly pounded out a treatment for a film called “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made.”

Jerry Juhl and Kermit the Frog. Copyright The Jim Henson Company. All rights reserved

So what sort of scenario did Juhl cook up for “Cheapest” ? Borrowing a page from Jim’s own life during this point in the history of Henson Associates, as this film is getting underway, Kermit is far too busy to take on any additional behind-the-scenes responsibilities on the next Muppet movie. Gonzo — who has always dreamed of directing — then offers to take over production of this motion picture. Kermit reluctantly agrees but does seem pleased that all he’ll have to do on this Muppet movie is appear in it. Rather than produce and then have to coax emotionally overwrought lady pigs out of their trailers.

So Gonzo goes off and — because his contract says that he has now creative control over this entire project — completely rewrites the script for the next Muppet movie. The film that he now wants to shoot is called “Into the Jaws of the Demons of Death.” Which — to hear Jerry Juhl describe the proposed storyline of the motion picture masterpiece that Gonzo wants to make — has …

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… this cheesy, terrible plot that made absolutely no sense whatsoever about something being stolen that led to a chase around the world.

Let’s Brian Jay Jones pick up “Cheapest” plotline from this point in the story. Gonzo now asks all of the friends to come to the Muppet Studios screening room to see all of the footage that he’s shot so far:

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In his enthusiasm, Gonzo spends his entire budget on an impressive opening credits sequence, then has no money left for the rest of the film, As the movie proceeds, the film quality gets worse and worse, eventually eroding into black-and-white Super 8 film, then a slide show, and finally just storyboards — until Gonzo sells out to corporate sponsors and finishes the movie in a beautiful, high-definition, widescreen format.

Jim was delighted with the treatment, and put Juhl to work writing a full script, which he turned in as Jim was wrapping up “A Muppet Family Christmas” in Ontario. Jim, Juhl and Oz passed the script back and forth, and even Oz — always prickly about the treatment of the characters — thought it was a exciting project. “It’s going to be the kind of movie the audience wants the Muppets to do,” he told Jim. “Just a little crazy and a whole lot of fun.”

As it was written, “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made” actually wouldn’t be cheap to make — Juhl’s script called for erupting volcanoes and exploding islands, and for Meryl Streep to play Miss Piggy’s stand-in — but the idea was funny and Jim thought he could manage things on a budget of $8 million.

(L to R) A very young Frank Oz, Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl wrestling with Big V, the Muppet monster made famous in the “Glow Worm” skit which debuted on “The Ed Sullivan Show” back in 1964. Copyright The Jim Henson Company. All rights reserved

And Henson was seriously about trying to keep “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made” ‘s production costs down. As Jones recounts, in late 1988, Jim …

… visited with Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas‘s groundbreaking special effects company, to discuss special effects for ‘The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made,’ which he was determined to put into production in 1989.

Jim Henson and George Lucas. Copyright The Jim Henson Company. All rights reserved

And even as late as Spring of 1990 — when most of Jim’s time, energy and attention were directed toward trying to wrap up The Walt Disney Company’s protracted negotiations to acquire Henson Associates for an estimated $150 million — he was still talking up “Cheapest.” Again from Brian Jay Jones’ best-selling book:

Jim made the short flight from Burbank up to Sacramento, then drove up the coastline to visit Jerry Juhl at his home a hundred miles north of San Francisco. The two walked and talked among the giant redwoods for a while, then returned to Juhl’s home office to discuss “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made,” which Jim was still determined to make once the Disney deal was complete. It was a project that the two of them loved to talk about — and Jim would spread the storyboards out on the floor of Juhl’s office where, in no time, the two of them would be giggling uncontrollably as they tossed around one idea after another.

Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl with the cast of “Fraggle Rock.” Copyright The Jim Henson Company.  All rights reserved

But then on May 16, 1990, Jim Henson died. And all of his grand plans for the Muppets and what he & his talented team were going to do at Disney slowly fell apart. In fact, by December of that same year, relations had gotten so strained between the Henson family & Mickey’s attorneys that The Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of Henson Associates was abruptly called off.

And in its place … Well, this weird sort of deal was then cobbled together. One that would allow the already completed “Jim Henson Presents Muppet Vision 3D” to begin being shown at Disney-MGM Studio theme park starting in May of 1991. Not to mention granting Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment distribution rights for much of the Jim Henson Company’s film library.

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And speaking of films … Then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner was determined that Walt Disney Pictures would start distributing new Muppet movies. And the sooner, the better. But the only problem was  — when the script for “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Produced” landed on his desk — Eisner saw this proposed film as too much of a inside joke. Something that people who actually lived & worked in Hollywood would get and enjoy. But as for the rest of the country … Well, Michael felt that Jim & Jerry’s good-natured ribbing of the entertainment industry would just confuse all of those folks out there in flyover country.

So setting aside the screenplay that he’d written for “Cheapest,” Juhl then crafted two scripts that met with Eisner’s approval: 1992’s “The Muppet Christmas Carol ” and 1996’s “Muppet Treasure Island .” Which placed Miss Piggy & pals in the context of two well-known classic stories that most moviegoers already knew. Which would — in theory, anyway — then make it that much easier to sell these two new Muppet movies to audiences around the world.

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Mind you, about this same time, Frank Oz began cutting back on his involvement in Muppet-related projects. Mostly this was because Oz’s career as a film director really began taking off in the late 1980s / early 1990s. Which meant that he then had less & less time to ” … wiggle the dollies.” (i.e., this was Jim & Frank’s deliberately dismissive way of describing the work that they did with the Muppets. These two truly talented men felt that — if they avoided being  precious about the puppets that they worked with — that would then make it that much easier for Henson & Oz to just concentrate on doing good work).

Which then led to situations like what happened on “Muppet Treasure Island.” Because Frank was so busy shooting “The Indian in the Cupboard ” while the Muppet version of this Robert Louis Stevenson story was being filmed, Kevin Clash performed Oz’s characters (i.e., Squire Trelawney [Fozzie Bear], Mr. Arrow [Sam Eagle] and Benjamina Gunn [Miss Piggy]) on set, and Oz then came in after-the-fact and looped those characters’ dialogue during post-production.

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There have also been whispers that — on the heels of the July 1999 release of “Muppets from Space ” — Frank wasn’t entirely happy with the direction that the Jim Henson Company was taking with the characters. While Oz has never talked publicly about the matter, it is worth noting that Frank’s last known performance as Miss Piggy was back on January 14, 2002. When he appeared alongside Steve Whitmire’s Kermit the Frog as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of NBC‘s Today.

Now where this gets interesting is that — in February of 2004 — The Walt Disney Company signed a binding purchasing agreement with The Jim Henson Company which would then allow the Mouse to acquire the Muppets as well as the Bear in the Big Blue House characters. And as Disney’s lawyers dug down in Henson’s files during the discovery phase of this acquisition, what did they discover? Jerry Juhl’s original screenplay for “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made.”

(L to R) Bob Iger, Michael Eisner and Dick Cook at the November 2004 premiere of Pixar’s “The Incredibles.” Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

This script & its storyboards eventually wound up on Dick Cook’s desk. And the then-Chairman of Walt Disney Studios just loved the idea of a movie where — as its budget continues to shrink — Gonzo and his “Into the Jaws of the Demons of Death” production team were eventually forced to use a shot of the exact same street corner for every city in the world.

That said, Cook knew that the Muppets had basically been out of the spotlight for five years at this point. Which meant that it would take something really special to reinvigorate this film franchise, get people excited about the idea of seeing a Muppet movie again. Which is why Dick reportedly gave Frank a call and asked him to come by Disney Studios so that they could then discuss the idea of Oz directing “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made.”

Frank Oz behind the camera.

And Cook couldn’t have picked a better project to try and lure Oz back into the Muppet fold. For as recently as February of 2000, Frank had still been talking with great enthusiasm about “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made.” In a four part interview with Ken Plume for Film Force, Oz insisted that the reason …

… I want to do the next Muppet movie (is) because I’m excited about a particular idea, and the idea is something that Jim and Jerry Juhl and I thought of 15 years ago.

(L to R) Alex Rockwell, Jim Henson and Frank Oz on the set of Muppet Vision 3D. Copyright The Jim Henson Company. All rights reserved

Now just to be clear here: This meeting reportedly happened in the late Summer / early Fall of 2005 just as Michael Eisner was stepping down as the head of The Walt Disney Company. And given that Bob Iger — the Company’s incoming president and chief executive officer — reportedly wasn’t quite the Muppet enthusiast that Michael Eisner was … Well, Cook knew that if he was going to convince Iger to greenlight production of a new Muppet movie, he’d need a hook. Which is why it was crucial to convince Oz to come direct “Cheapest.”

And “Cheapest” had supposedly been on Frank’s mind. What with Jerry Juhl’s  passing on September 26, 2005, it seemed that more & more of his good friends — the very people who had taken a chance on this 17 year-old kid back in the early 1960s and helped Oz get his start in the entertainment industry — were slipping away. So if Frank could actually finally get “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made” … Well, that could then be his way of honoring the memory of Jim & Jerry.

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The only problem was that — as Dick & Frank began to talk about theis project — it quickly became apparent that they just couldn’t see eye-to-eye on this proposed film’s budget. The story that I’ve always been told is that Cook really did want to make the cheapest Muppet movie ever made. And the amount of money that he supposedly offered Oz to produce & direct this motion picture was miniscule.

Whereas Oz … Because he knew Juhl’s script backwards & forwards, Frank understood that there were gags in this screenplay which hinged on really expensive things. Like volcanoes suddenly erupting on tranquil islands. And in an infamous exchange with Disney’s studio chief, Oz reportedly turned to Cook and said “Do you know how much money you have to spend in order to make something look cheap?”

Frank Oz on set

With the hope that Frank might eventually find a way to drive the projected production costs of “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made” down, Cook asked Oz to meet with the studio’s special effects department and continue to develop Juhl’s screenplay. But about this same time in 2006, Jason Segel came a-knocking with his own pitch for a brand-new Muppet movie. One that aimed to revive this franchise by reaching back to the style & tone of the first three Muppet movies as well as the old “Muppet Show” TV series.

In the end, given that what Segel was proposing was basically a reboot of the Muppets (which was really more in line with what The Walt Disney Company was looking for back then. Given that there was an entire generation of consumers out there who didn’t know Kermit & Co. / weren’t emotionally connected with these characters) and given that Oz & Cook couldn’t come to terms over “Cheapest” ‘s budget, Dick eventually opted to go with Jason’s proposal. And Frank … After he departed Disney, Oz eventually went on to direct 2007’s “Death at a Funeral .”

Frank Oz directs Peter Dinklage on the set of “Death at a Funeral.” Copyright 2007 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. All rights reserved

Now where this story gets kind of confusing is that — even though Walt Disney Studios was now committed to shooting Segel’s version of a Muppet revival movie — Cook kept referring to this project as “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made.” Dick even stood onstage at the inaugural D23 EXPO back in September of 2009 and used that very same title in front of the Disney faithful. Even though he knew that the film that Jason wanted to make had nothing to do with the screenplay that Jerry had written back in 1987.

Look, it’s not like The Jim Henson Company & The Walt Disney Company doesn’t have other unproduced Muppet screenplays lying around. Google “The Muppets Haunted Hotel,” “Muppets Haunted Movie” & “Muppets Time Travel” (Or — for that matter — “Muppets in Space” rather than “Muppets from Space”) and you’ll see what I mean.

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But even so, at a time when the Studio was unsure that the movie-going public would actually embrace a Jason Segel-free sequel to 2010’s “The Muppets,” one has to wonder if — as Disney execs were reviewing their options back then — someone there went riffling through the files. And given that studio execs are always trying to keep the production costs down on sequels because the old Hollywood rule-of-thumb is that follow-up films only gross 4/5th to 2/3rds of what the original motion picture made … Well, a script entitled “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made” would have been very, very tempting.

Anyway … That’s the story as it was told to me by several Disney & Muppet insiders. Plus the info I pulled out of Brian Jay Jones’ award-winning “Jim Henson: The Biography .” So what do you think? Does “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made” actually sound like something that you’d have paid to see?

The Muppets onstage at the D23 EXPO back in September of 2009. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Your thoughts?

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Film & Movies

How Disney’s “Bambi” led to the creation of Smokey Bear



When people talk about Disney’s “Bambi,” the scene that they typically cite as being the one from this 1942 film which then scarred them for life is – of course – the moment in this movie where Bambi’s mother gets shot by hunters.

Which is kind of ironic. Given that – if you watch this animated feature today – you’ll see that a lot of this ruined-my-childhood scene actually happens off-camera. I mean, you hear the rifle shot that takes down Bambi’s Mom. But you don’t actually see that Mama Deer get clipped.

Now for the scariest part of that movie that you actually see on-camera … Hands down, that has to be the forest fire sequence in “Bambi.” As the grown-up Bambi & his bride, Faline, desperately race through those woods, trying to find a path to safety as literally everything around them is ablaze … That sequence is literally nightmare fuel.


Mind you, the artists at Walt Disney Animation Studios had lots of inspiration for the forest fire sequence in “Bambi.” You see, in a typical year, the United States experiences – due to either natural phenomenon like lightning strikes or human carelessness – 100 forest fires. Whereas in 1940 (i.e., the year that Disney Studios began working in earnest of a movie version of Felix Salten’s best-selling movie), America found itself battling a record 360 forest fires.

Which greatly concerned the U.S. Forest Service. But not for the reason you might think.

Protecting the Forest for World War II

I mean, yes. Sure. Officials over in the Agricultural Department (That’s the arm of the U.S. government that manages the Forest Service) were obviously concerned about the impact that this record number of forest fires in 1940 had had on citizens. Not to mention all of the wildlife habitat that was now lost.

But to be honest, what really concerned government officials was those hundreds of thousands of acres of raw timber that had been consumed by these blazes. You see, by 1940, the world was on the cusp of the next world war. A conflict that the U.S. would inevitably  be pulled into. And all that now-lost timber? It could have been used to fuel the U.S. war machine.

So with this in mind (and U.S. government officials now seeing an urgent need to preserve & protect this precious resource) … Which is why – in 1942 (just a few months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor) – the U.S. Forest Service rolls out its first-ever forest fire prevention program.

Which – given that this was the early days of World War II – the slogan that the U.S. Forest Service initially chose for its forest fire prevention program is very in that era’s we’re-all-in-this-together / so-let’s-do-what-we-can-to-help-America’s war-effort esthetic – made a direct appeal to all those folks who were taking part in scrap metal drives: “Forest Defense is National Defense.”

Source: Northwestern

And the poster that the U.S. Forest Service had created to support this campaign? … Well, it was well-meaning as well.  It was done in the WPA style and showed men out in the forest, wielding shovels to ditch a ditch. They were trying to construct a fire break, which would then supposedly slow the forest fire that was directly behind them.

But the downside was … That “Forest Defense is National Defense” slogan – along with that poster which the U.S. Forest Service had created to support their new forest fire prevention program didn’t exactly capture America’s attention.

I mean, it was the War Years after all. A lot was going in the country at that time. But long story short: the U.S. Forest Service’s first attempt at launching a successful forest fire prevention program sank without a trace.

So what do you do in a situation like this? You regroup. You try something different.

Disney & Bambi to the Rescue

And within the U.S. government, the thinking now was “Well, what if we got a celebrity to serve as the spokesman for our new forest fire prevention program? Maybe that would then grab the public’s attention.”

The only problem was … Well, again, these are the War Years. And a lot of that era’s A-listers (people like Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, even Mel Brooks) had already enlisted. So there weren’t really a lot of big-name celebrities to choose from.

But then some enterprising official at the U.S. Forest Service came up with an interesting idea. He supposedly said “Hey, have you seen that new Disney movie? You know, the one with the deer? That movie has a forest fire in it. Maybe we should go talk with Walt Disney? Maybe he has some ideas about how we can better capture the public’s attention when it comes to our new forest fire prevention program?”

And it turns Walt did have an idea. Which was to use this government initiative as a way to cross-promote Disney Studio’s latest full-length animated feature, “Bambi.” Which been first released to theaters in August of 1942.

So Walt had artists at Disney Studio work up a poster that featured the grown-up versions of Bambi the Deer, Thumper the Rabbit & Flower the Skunk. As this trio stood in some tall grasses, they looked imploring out at whoever was standing in front of this poster. Above them was a piece of text that read “Please Mister, Don’t Be Careless.” And below these three cartoon characters was an additional line that read “Prevent Forest Fires. Greater Danger Than Ever!”

Source: USDA

According to folks I’ve spoken with at Disney’s Corporate Archives, this “Bambi” -based promotional campaign for the U.S. Forest Service’s forest fire prevention campaign was a huge success. So much so that – as 1943 drew to a close – this division of the Department of Agriculture reportedly reached out to Walt to see if he’d be willing to let the U.S. Forest Service continue to use these cartoon characters to help raise the public’s awareness of fire safety.

Walt – for reasons known only to Mr. Disney – declined. Some have suggested that — because “Bambi” had actually lost money during its initial theatrical release in North America – that Walt was now looking to put that project behind him. And if there were posters plastered all over the place that then used the “Bambi” characters that then promoted the U.S.’s forest fire prevention efforts … Well, it would then be far harder for Mr. Disney to put this particular animated feature in the rear view mirror.

Introducing Smokey Bear

Long story short: Walt said “No” when it came to reusing the “Bambi” characters to promote the U.S. Forest Service’s forest fire prevention program. But given how successful the previous cartoon-based promotional campaign had been … Well, some enterprising employee at the Department of Agriculture reportedly said “Why don’t we come up with a cartoon character of our own?”

So – for the Summer of 1944 – the U.S. Forest Service (with the help of the Ad Council and the National Association of State Foresters) came up with a character to help promote the prevention of forest fires. And his name is Smokey Bear.

Now a lot of thought had gone into Smokey’s creation. Right from the get-go, it was decided that he would be an American black bear (NOT a brown bear or a grizzly). To make this character seem approachable, Smokey was outfitted with a ranger’s hat. He also wore a pair of blue jeans & carried a bucket.

As for his debut poster, Smokey was depicted as pouring water over a still-smoldering campfire. And below this cartoon character was printed Smokey’s initial catchphrase. Which was “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!”

Source: NPR

Which makes me think that this slogan was written by the very advertising executive who wrote “Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum.”

Anyway … By the Summer of 1947, Smokey got a brand-new slogan. The one that he uses even today. Which is “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

The Real Smokey Bear

Now where this gets interesting is – in the Summer of 1950 – there was a terrible forest fire up in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. And over the course of this blaze, a bear cub climbed high up into a tree to try & escape those flames.

Firefighters were finally able to rescue that cub. But he was so badly injured in that fire that he was shipped off to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and nursed back to health. And since this bear really couldn’t be released back in the wild at this point, he was then put on exhibit.

And what does this bear’s keepers decide to call him? You guessed it: Smokey.

Source: USDA

And due to all the news coverage that this orphaned bear got, he eventually became the living symbol of the U.S. Forest Service’s forest fire prevention program. Which then meant that this particular Smokey Bear got hit with a ton of fan mail. So much so that the National Zoo in Washington D.C. wound up with its own Zip Code.

“Smokey the Bear” Hit Song

And on the heels of a really-for-real Smokey Bear taking up residence in our nation’s capital, Steve Nelson & Jack Rollins decide to write a song that shined a spotlight on this fire-fightin’ bruin. Here’s the opening stanza:

With a ranger’s hat and shovel and a pair of dungarees,
You will find him in the forest always sniffin’ at the breeze,
People stop and pay attention when he tells them to beware
Because everybody knows that he’s the fire-preventin’ bear

Believe or not, even with lyrics like these, “Smokey the Bear” briefly topped the Country charts in the Summer of 1950. Thanks to a version of this song that was recorded by Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy.

By the way, it was this song that started all of the confusion in regards to Smokey Bear’s now. You see, Nelson & Rollins – because they need the lyrics of their song to scan properly – opted to call this fire-fightin’-bruin Smokey THE Bear. Rather than Smokey Bear. Which has been this cartoon character’s official name since the U.S. Forest Service first introduced him back in 1944.

“The Ballad of Smokey the Bear”

Further complicating this issue was “The Ballad of Smokey the Bear,” which was a stop-motion animated special that debuted on NBC in late November of 1966. Produced by Rankin-Bass as a follow-up to their hugely popular “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (which premiered on the Peacock Network in December of 1964) … This hour-long TV show also put a “THE” in the middle of Smokey Bear’s name because the folks at Rankin-Bass thought his name sounded better that way.

And speaking of animation … Disney’s “Bambi” made a brief return to the promotional campaign for the U.S. Forest Service’s forest fire prevention program in the late 1980s. This was because the Company’s home entertainment division had decided to release this full-length animated feature on VHS.

What’s kind of interesting, though, is the language used on the “Bambi” poster is a wee different than the language that’s used on Smokey’s poster. It reads “Protect Our Forest Friends. Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.” NOT “Forest Fires.”

Anyway, that’s how Disney’s “Bambi” led to the creation of Smokey Bear. Thanks for bearin’ with me as I clawed my way through this grizzly tale.

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Film & Movies

“Indiana Jones and the Search for Indiana Jones”



News came late last week that NBC was cancelling the “Magnum PI” remake. This series (which obviously took its inspiration from the Tom Selleck show that originally debuted on CBS back in December of 1980 and then went on run on that network for 8 seasons. With its final episode airing on May 8, 1988).

Anyway … Over 30 years later, CBS decided to remake “Magnum.” This version of the action drama debuted on September 24, 2018 and ran for four seasons before then being cancelled. NBC picked up the “Magnum” remake where it ran for one more season before word came down on June 23rd that this action drama was being cancelled yet again.

FYI: The second half of Season 5 of “Magnum” (10 episodes) has yet to air on NBC. It will be interesting to see when that final set of shows / the series finale gets scheduled.

This all comes to mind this week – out ahead of the theatrical release of “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” because … Well, if CBS execs had been a bit more flexible back in 1980, the star of the original version of “Magnum PI” (Tom Selleck) would have played the lead in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Which was released to theaters back on June 12, 1981.

That’s the part of the Indiana Jones story that the folks at Lucasfilm often opt to skim over.

That Harrison Ford wasn’t George Lucas’ first choice to play Doctor Jones.

Auditions for Indiana Jones – Harrison’s Not on the List

Mind you, Steven Spielberg – right from the get-go – had pushed for Ford to play this part. The way I hear it, Lucas showed Spielberg a work-in-progress cut of “The Empire Strikes Back.” And Steven was so taken with Harrison’s performance as Han Solo in that Irwin Kershner film that he immediately began pushing for Ford to be cast as Doctor Jones.

Whereas Mr. Lucas … I mean, it wasn’t that George had anything against Harrison. What with Ford’s performances first in “American Grafitti” and then in “A New Hope,” these two already had a comfortable working relationship.

But that said, Lucas was genuinely leery of … Well, the sort of creative collaboration that Martin Scorcese and Robert DeNiro. Where one actor & one director repeatedly worked together. To George’s way of thinking, that was a risky path to follow. Hitching your wagon to a single star.

Which is why – when auditions got underway for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1979 — Mike Fenton basically brought in every big performer of that era to read for Dr. Jones except Harrison Ford. We’re talking:

  • Steve Martin
  • Chevy Chase
  • Bill Murray
  • Jack Nicholson
  • Peter Coyote
  • Nick Nolte
  • Sam Elliot
  • Tim Matheson
  • and Harry Hamlin

Casting a Comedian for Indiana Jones

Please note that there are a lot of comedians on this list. That’s because – while “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was in development — Spielberg was directed his epic WWII comedy, “1941.” And for a while there, Steve & George were genuinely uncertain about whether the movie that they were about to make would be a sincere valentine to the movie serials of the 1930s & the 1940s or more of a spoof.

It’s worth noting here that three of the more ridiculous set pieces found in “Temple of Doom” …

  • the shoot-out at Club Obi Wan in Shanghai
  • Indy, Willie & Short Round surviving that plane crash by throwing an inflatable life raft out of the cargo hatch
  • and that film’s mine cart chase (which was not only inspired by Disney theme park favorites the Matterhorn Bobsleds & Big Thunder Mountain Railroad but some of the sound effects that you hear in this portion of “Temple of Doom” were actually recorded after hours at Disneyland inside of these very same attractions)

…  all originally supposed to be in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I’ve actually got a copy of the very first version of the screenplay that Lawrence Kasdan wrote for the first “Indy” movie where all three of these big action set pieces were supposed to be part of the story that “Raiders” told. And I have to tell you that this early iteration of the “Raiders” screenplay really does read more like a spoof of serials than a sincere, loving salute to this specific style of cinema.

Casting Indiana Jones – Jeff or Tom

Anyway … Back now to the casting of the male lead for “Raiders” … After seeing virtually every actor out in LA while looking for just the right performer to portray Indiana Jones, it all came down to two guys:

  • Jeff Bridges
  • and Tom Selleck

Jeff Bridges as Indiana Jones

Mike Fenton was heavily pushing for Jeff Bridges. Having already appeared with Clint Eastwood in 1974’s “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” (Not to mention that “King Kong” remake from 1976), Bridges was a known quantity. But what Fenton liked especially liked about Bridges when it came to “Raiders” was … Well, at that time, Jeff was just coming off “Heaven’s Gate.”

Mind you, nowadays, because we’ve all now had the luxury of seeing the director’s cut of this Michael Cimino movie, we recognize “Heaven’s Gate” for the cinematic masterpiece that it is. But 40+ years ago, that honestly wasn’t the case. All audiences had to judge this movie by was the severely truncated version that United Artists sent out into theaters. Which – because “Heaven’s Gate” had cost $44 million to make and only sold $3.5 million of tickets – then became the textbook example of Hollywood excess.


Long story short: Given that being associated with “Heaven’s Gate” had somewhat dinged Bridges’ reputation for being a marketable star (i.e., a performer that people would pay good money to see up on the big screen), Jeff was now looking to appear in something highly commercial. And the idea of playing the lead in a film directed by Steven Spielberg (the “Jaws” & “Close Encounter” guy) and produced by George Lucas (Mr. “Star Wars”) was very, very appealing at that time. Bridges was even willing to sign a contract with Spielberg & Lucas that would have then roped him into not only playing Indiana Jones in “Raider of the Lost Ark” but also to appear as this very same character in two yet-to-be-written sequels.

Better yet, because “Heaven’s Gate” had temporarily dimmed Bridges’ star status, Jeff was also willing to sign on to do the first “Indy” film for well below his usual quote. With the understanding that – should “Raiders of the Lost Ark” succeed at the box office – Bridges would then be paid far more to appear in this film’s two sequels.

That seemed like a very solid plan for “Raiders.” Landing a known movie star to play the lead in this action-adventure at a bargain price.

Ah, but standing in Mike Fenton’s way was Marcia Lucas.

Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones

Marcia Lucas, who had seen Tom Selleck’s audition for “Raiders” (And you can see it as well. Just go to Google and type in “Tom Selleck” and “Indiana Jones.” And if you dig around for a bit, you’ll then see a feature that Lucas & Spielberg shot for “Entertainment Tonight” back in 2008 [This story was done in support of the theatrical release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”]. And as part of this piece, George and Steve share Tom’s original audition for “Raiders.” And what’s genuinely fascinating about this footage is that Selleck’s scene partner is Sean Young. Who – at that time, anyway – was up for the role of Marion Ravenwood) and kept telling her husband, “You should cast this guy. He’s going to be a big star someday.”

And given that George was smart enough to regularly heed Marcia Lucas’ advice (She had made invaluable suggestions when it came to the editing of “American Graffiti” and the original “Star Wars.” Not to downplay George Lucas’ cinematic legacy, but Marcia Lucas was a world-class storyteller in and of her own right), Lucas then reached out to Spielberg and persuaded him that they should cast relative unknown Tom Selleck as Doctor Jones over the already well-known Jeff Bridges.

Now don’t feel too bad for Jeff Bridges. When he lost out on playing the lead in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Jeff then accepted a role in the very next, high profile, sure-to-be-commercial project that came along. Which turned out to be Disney’s very first “TRON” movie. Which was eventually released to theaters on July 9, 1982.

Back to Tom Selleck now … You have to remember that – back then – Selleck was the handsome guy who’d already shot pilots for six different shows that then hadn’t gone to series. Which was why Tom was stuck being the guest star on shows like “The Fall Guy” and “Taxi.” Whereas once word got out around town that Selleck was supposed to play the lead in a project that Spielberg was directed & Lucas was producing … Well, this is when CBS decided that they’d now take the most recent pilot that Tom had shot and then go to series with this show.

That program was – of course – the original “Magnum PI.” And it’s at this point where our story started to get complicated.

“Magnum PI” – Two Out of Three Say “Yes”

Okay. During the first season of a TV show, it’s traditionally the network – rather than the production company (which – in this case – was Glen A. Larson Productions. The company behind the original versions of “Battlestar Galactica” & “Knight Rider”) or the studio where this series is actually being shot (which – in this case – was Universal Television) that has all the power. And in this particular case, the network execs who were pulling all the strings behind-the-scenes worked for CBS.

And when it came to the first season of “Magnum PI,” CBS had a deal with Glen A. Larson Productions and Universal Television which stated that the talent which had been contracted to appear in this new action drama would then be available for the production of at least 13 episodes with an option to shoot an additional 9 episodes (This is known in the industry as the back nine. As in: the last nine holes of a golf course).

Anyway, if you take those initial 13 episodes and then tack on the back nine, you then get 22 episodes total. Which – back in the late 1970s / early 1980s, anyway – was what a full season of a network television show typically consisted of.

Anyway … The contract that Selleck had signed with Glen A. Larson Productions, Universal Television & CBS stated that he had to be available when production of Season One of “Magnum PI” began in March of 1980. More to the point, Tom also had to be available should CBS exercise its option to air 22 episodes of this new series on that television network over the course of “Magnum PI” ‘s first season.  

Which then made things complicated for George Lucas & Steven Spielberg because … Well, in order for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to make its June 12, 1981 release date, that then meant that production of the first “Indy” movie would have to get underway no later than June 23, 1980.

But here’s the thing: Production of Season One of “Magnum PI” was scheduled to run through the first week of July of that same year (1980). So in order for Tom Selleck to play Indiana Jones in “Raiders,” he was going to need to be wrapped on production of “Magnum PI” by June 22, 1980 at the absolute latest.

So Spielberg & Lucas went to Glen A. Larsons Productions and asked if Selleck could please be sprung from his “Magnum PI” contractual obligations by June 22nd. And they said “Yes.” Then Steven & George went to Universal Television and asked executives there for their help  in clearing Tom’s schedule so that he’d then be available to start work on “Raiders.” And they say “Yes” as well.

Spielberg & Lucas now go to CBS. But instead of the quick “Yeses” that they got from officials at Glen A. Larson Productions and Universal Television, it takes those suits at the Tiffany Network weeks before they then decided to say “No, they couldn’t release Tom Selleck early to go work on ‘Raiders’ “ because …

I’ve never really been able to get a straight answer here as to why CBS execs dug in their heels here. Why they flat-out refused to release Selleck early from his “Magnum PI” contractual obligation and allow him to go shoot “Raiders.”

Payback from “The Star Wars Holiday Special” Trash Talk

That said, it is worth noting that “The Star Wars Holiday Special” aired on CBS back in November of 1978. And given that – in the years that followed —  Lucas wasn’t exactly shy when it came to saying how much he hated that two hour-long presentation (Or – for that matter – how George really regretted caving into the requests of CBS execs. Who had insisted that television stars long associated with the Tiffany Network – people like Art Carney, Harvey Korman & Bea Arthur – be given prominent guest starring roles in “The Star Wars Holiday Special”). And I’ve heard whispers over the years that CBS executives preventing Tom Selleck from appearing in “Raiders” could be interpreted as the Tiffany Network getting some payback for what George had said publicly about the “Star Wars Holiday Special.”

Harrison Ford Comes to Rescue “Indiana Jones”

Anyway … It’s now literally just weeks before production of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is supposed to begin and Spielberg & Lucas have just learned that that they’ve lost their film’s star. CBS is flat-out refusing to release Tom Selleck early from his “Magnum PI” contractual obligation. So Steven & George now have to find someone else to play Indy … and fast.

The real irony here is … The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists would go on strike in the Summer of 1980. Which then shut prematurely shut down production of the first season of “Magnum PI.” (As a direct result, the first full season of this action drama to air on CBS only had 18 episodes, rather than the usual 22). And because this job action lasted ‘til October 23rd of that same year … Well, this meant that Tom Selleck would have actually been free to start shooting “Raiders of the Lost Ark” on June 23, 1980 because production of Season One of “Magnum PI” was already shut down by then due to that AFTRA strike.

But no one knew – in May of 1980, anyway – that this job action was going to happen in just a few weeks. All that Steven Spielberg & George Lucas knew was that they now needed a new lead actor for “Raiders.” And circling back on Jeff Bridges was no longer an option. As I mentioned earlier, Jeff had agreed to do “TRON” for Disney. And – in the interim – Bridges gone off to shoot “Cutter’s Way” for MGM / UA.

Credit: EW

So this is where Harrison Ford enters the equation. As he recalls:

In May of 1980, I get a call from George Lucas. Who says ‘I’m messaging a script over to you this morning. As soon as it gets there, I need you to immediately read this script. Then – as soon as you’re done – I need you to call.

So the script arrives and it’s for ‘Raiders.’ I read it and it’s good. So I call George back and say ‘It’s good.’ And he then says ‘Would you be interested in playing Indy?’ I say that it looks like it would be a fun part to play.

George then says ‘ That’s great to hear. Because we start shooting in four weeks. Now I need you to meet with Steven Spielberg today and convince him that you’re the right guy to play Indy.’

Of course, given that Spielberg had been pushing for Ford to pay Indy ever since he had first seen that work-in-progress version of “The Empire Strikes Back” … Well, Harrison’s meeting with Steven was very, very short. And just a few weeks later, Spielberg, Lucas & Ford were all at the Port de la Pallice in La Rochelle. Where – on the very first day of shooting on “Raiders” (which – again – was June 23, 1980)– the scene that was shot was the one where that Nazi sub (the one that Indy had lashed himself to its periscope by using his bullwhip as a rope) was arriving at its secret base.

And all of this happened because Harrison immediately agreed to do “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when the part of Indy was first offered to him in mid-May of 1980.  

Before “Star Wars” was “Star Wars”

So why such a quick yes? Well, you have to remember that “Empire Strikes Back” wouldn’t be released to theaters ‘til May 21, 1980. And no one knew at that time whether this sequel to the original “Star Wars” would do as well at the box office as “A New Hope” had back in 1977 (FYI: “Empire” would eventually sell over $500 million worth of tickets worldwide. Which is roughly two thirds of what the original “Star Wars” earned three years earlier).

More to the point, the four films that Harrison had shot right after “A New Hope” / prior to “Empire Strikes Back” (i.e., “Heroes” AND “Force 10 from Navarone” AND “Hanover Street” AND “The Frisco Kid”) had all under-performed at the box office. So to Ford’s way of thinking, taking on a role that Tom Selleck was no longer available to play – one that had the potential of spawning two sequels – seemed like a very smart thing to do. Especially after three years of cinematic stumbles.

By the way, whenever this topic ever comes up, Harrison Ford is very gracious. He always makes a point of saying that he’s grateful to have gotten this career opportunity. More to the point, that he still feels kind of bad that Tom Selleck never got the chance to play this part.

Tom Selleck After “Indiana Jones”

That said, we shouldn’t feel too bad for Tom Selleck. After all, the original “Magnum PI” proved to be a long running hit for CBS. And in an effort to smooth over any residual bad feelings that may have resulted from Tom being forced to give up “Raiders” back in May of 1980, Selleck was eventually allowed to create his own production company (i.e., T.W.S. Productions, Inc. As in Thomas William Selleck Productions). Which – after the fact – was then cut in on some of those “Magnum PI” -related revenue streams.

More to the point, while “Magnum PI” was on hiatus following its second year in production, Selleck flew off to Yugoslavia. Where he then shot his own Indiana Jones-esque film for theatrical release. Which was called “High Road to China” in the States, but – overseas – was promoted as “Raiders of the End of the World.”

FYI: Warner Bros. released “High Road to China” stateside 40 years ago this year. On March 18, 1983, to be exact. It didn’t do all that great at the box office. $28 million in ticket sales versus $15 million in production costs.

And over the years, there’s even been some talk of finding a way to maybe set things right here. By that I mean: Finally finding a way to officially fold Tom Selleck into the world of Indiana Jones.

Could Tom Selleck Work with Indiana Jones?

The way I hear it, between the time when “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” was theatrically released in May of 1989 and when “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” debuted in May of 2008, there were a number of ideas for Indiana Jones sequels tossed around. And from what I’ve been told, there was at least one treatment for a fourth Indiana Jones film written that proposed pairing up Harrison Ford & Tom Selleck. With the idea here being that Selleck was supposed to have played Ford’s brother.

Obviously that film was never made. And – no – I don’t know what state Indiana Jones’ brother was supposed to be named after.

This article is based on research for Looking at Lucasfilm “Episode 80”, published on June 29, 2023. Looking at Lucasfilm is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Film & Movies

Will “Metro” – that “Cars” Spin-Off Which Disney Developed – Ever Get Made?



Will Metro Ever Get Made?

First came “Cars” in June of 2006.

This Pixar Animation Studios production did so well (Of all the high grossing films released that year, “Cars” was No. 2 at the box office. Only “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” sold more tickets in 2006) that Disney execs asked John Lasseter to develop a sequel.

“Cars 2” came out in June of 2011 and also did quite well at the box office (It took the No. 7 slot in the Top-Ten-for-ticket-sales that year). Which is why Disney then asked Pixar to prep a follow-up film.

“Cars 3” would eventually arrive in theaters in June of 2017. But in the meantime, Disney & Pixar began exploring the idea of expanding this film franchise. Largely because the amount of money that the Mouse was making off of the sales of “Cars” -related merchandise was … To be blunt here, mind boggling.

Don’t believe me? Well, then consider this: In just the first five years that the “Cars” film franchise existed, global retail sales of merchandise related to these Pixar movies approached $10 billion. That’s billion with a “B.”

So is it any wonder that – while Pixar was still trying to get a handle on what “Cars 3” would actually be about – the Mouse (through its DisneyToon Studios arm. Which produced home premieres like those “TinkerBell” movies) began actively looking into ways to expand this lucrative franchise?

“Planes” – The First “Cars” Spin-Off

The first “Cars” spin-off to arrive in the marketplace was “Planes.” This Klay Hall film (which was set in “The World Above Cars”) was released theatrically in August of 2013, with the Blu-ray & DVD version of “Planes” hitting store shelves in November of that same year.

“Planes: Fire and Rescue” followed in the Summer of 2014. And while a “Planes 3” was definitely put in development (At the Disney Animation panel at the 2017 D23 Expo, John Lasseter not only shared a clip from this film. But he also revealed that this project – which, at that time, was entitled “Space” – was slated to be released theatrically in April of 2019) … This animated feature was abruptly cancelled when DisneyToon Studios was shuttered in June of 2018.

But wait. There’s more … In addition to the aborted “Planes 3,”  Disney had other “Cars” spin-offs in the works. One was supposed to be built around boats. While yet another was supposed to have shined a spotlight on trucks.

“Metro” – The World Below Cars

And then there was “Metro.” Which was supposed to have been set in the inner city and focused on what went on in “The World Below Cars.” As in: Down in the subway system.

Just in the past week or so, a few pieces of concept art for “Metro” have surfaced online. Giving us all an intriguing look at what might have been. These preproduction paintings suggest that this “Cars” spin-off would be far grittier than … Say … the sort of adventures that Lightning McQueen & Mater would typically have out in Radiator Springs.

Metro - Cars Spin-Off Movie Poster
Credit: Disney
Metro - Cars Spin-Off Concept Art
Credit: Disney
Metro - Cars Spin-Off Concept Art
Credit: Disney
Metro - Cars Spin-Off Concept Art
Credit: Disney

That said, it’s worth noting here that – just in the past year or so – we’ve seen Disney & Pixar attempt to expand the turf that these two characters could comfortably cover. Take – for example — “Cars on the Road,” that nine-part series which debuted on Disney+ back in September of last year. This collection of animated shorts literally sent Lightning McQueen & Mater off on a road trip.

So who knows?

Given that Bob Iger (at Disney’s quarterly earnings call held earlier this week) revealed that the Company now has sequels in the works for “Frozen,” “Toy Story,” and “Zootopia” … Well, is it really all that far-fetched to think that – at some point further on down the road – Disney & Pixar will put yet another sequel to “Cars” in the works?

One that might send Lightning McQueen & Mater off to explore the gritty inner-city world that we glimpsed in all that concept art for “Metro,” that never-produced “Cars” spin-off.

Time will tell.

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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