Screenwriter Don DaGradi always called himself a “misplaced cartoonist” at heart. He began his career painting backgrounds for Disney animated films and, ultimately, went on to co-script such memorable films as the Academy Award® winning Mary Poppins. Yet it was Don’s skill as an artist and his love of visual gags that enhanced the fun and fantasy of Disney’s live-action films.
In their book, Walt’s Time: From Before to Beyond, songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman described Don as “the sort of guy who wrote with a sketch pad and a charcoal pencil. He could visualize the sequences right there on paper and you could actually see them come to life.
“Almost everything you see [in Mary Poppins]—the entire “Jolly Holiday” sequence, people floating through the air and flying up the chimney—these visions were created by Don DaGradi. Our praise for Don is endless.”
Born in 1911 to an Italian father and British mother in New York City, Don grew up in San Francisco, California. He later moved to Los Angeles to study painting at Chouinard Art Institute, and, like many of his fellow students, joined the Walt Disney Studio at the height of the Depression in the mid-1930s.
Before long, the multi-talented artist moved from painting backgrounds to the Story Department, where he wrote for Disney’s animated shorts. He went on to serve as art director on such films as Dumbo, and to design layouts for The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, and Melody Time. Don also developed color and styling for such Disney animated classics as The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan, and later worked on story for Lady and the Tramp and production design for Sleeping Beauty.
In 1959, Don broke into live-action film production when Walt asked him to design the underground cavern sequences for Darby O’Gill and the Little People. He later developed story sketches for Kidnapped and served as sequence consultant on Pollyanna, The Absent-Minded Professor, and The Parent Trap.
In 1962, he collaborated with fellow Disney Legend Bill Walsh on the live-action screenplay, Son of Flubber, followed by Mary Poppins. Their overwhelming success on that project led Don and Bill to write additional screenplays, including Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N., Blackbeard’s Ghost, Scandalous John, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Love Bug, and more.
Amidst Don’s many contributions to film, Walt also tapped his artistic genius to design costumes, including band uniforms, for Disneyland cast members, and exteriors for attractions including Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. After 34 years with the company, Don retired in 1970.
Don DaGradi passed away on August 4, 1991, in Friday Harbor, Washington.