When Ben Sharpsteen joined The Walt Disney Studios in 1929, he quickly became Walt’s right-hand man for animated and live-action film production. As Walt once wrote, “Concerning Ben Sharpsteen and his contributions to the development of the Disney organization, I want to say he played a very important part.”
Born in Tacoma, Washington, on November 4, 1895, Ben was raised in Alameda, California. He studied agriculture at the University of California at Davis and, in 1917, joined the United States Marines serving in World War I.
A gifted artist, he won a job after the war with the Hearst International Film Service, working on such early animated series as Happy Hooligan. He went on to work as an animator at Paramount, Jefferson Films, and the Max Fleischer Studio in New York.
A mutual friend recommended Ben to Walt Disney, who sent a letter inviting him to visit the Studio in Los Angeles. The day Ben arrived, Walt showed his prospective employee Mickey Mouse cartoons. “My first reaction,” Ben later recalled, “was that they were excellent, compared to animation I knew… ”
Walt valued Ben for his New York studio experience and hired him at $125 a week, a salary higher than his own, $50, and that of top animator Ub Iwerks, who was making $90.
For the next six years, Ben animated on 97 Mickey Mouse cartoons, including Mickey’s Follies, The Chain Gang, and Mickey’s Revue, as well as some Silly Symphonies. In 1933, at Walt’s request, he established an in-house animation training program and acted as a talent scout, recruiting such stellar artists as Disney Legend Bill Tytla.
The next year, Ben directed the first of 21 animated shorts, Two Gun Mickey, and when the Studio moved into feature-length animation he served as a sequence director on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He would go on to serve as supervising co-director on Pinocchio and production supervisor on Fantasia, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland.
In 1947, Ben produced his first live-action film, Seal Island. It was the first of the True-Life Adventures series, and won an Oscar® for the Studio. He went on to produce 12 of the 13 True-Life Adventures, eight of which earned Academy Awards®.
During the 1950s, Ben also produced the “People and Places” series; three of these earned Oscars: The Alaskan Eskimo, Men Against the Arctic, and The Ama Girls. In 1954, Ben began producing the Disneyland television series and appeared on its first episode. After 33 years with the company, he retired in 1962.
Ben Sharpsteen passed away on December 20, 1980, in Calistoga, California, where he founded the Sharpsteen Museum, which is dedicated to the area’s pioneers.