Neil Beckett, Disney representative to New Zealand, was, as former vice chairman of The Walt Disney Company Roy E. Disney recalled, “a big, affable, bearded bear of a guy who seemed to know—and love—everyone in the country.”
He was also among the most colorful and bold of Disney’s real-life characters.
As his cousin Noel Beckett described, “One year, when Neil and his wife Jenny were visiting the Brisbane Expo, Neil couldn’t stand the length of the queues. So he went down the road and hired a wheelchair. When they returned to the Expo, Jenny wheeled him around and they jumped in front of all the queues.”
Born Cornelius Kelleher Beckett on November 10, 1923, in the village of Linton, New Zealand, Neil was the son of a retailer and a homemaker. At 15, he attended Silver Stream Boarding School in nearby Wellington and upon graduation was commissioned into the nation’s Naval forces. During World War II, he served as a sub-lieutenant aboard frigates that patrolled the northern coast of the country to guard against enemy invasion.
After the war, Neil moved to Auckland. There he started an advertising and public relations firm, Beckett Agencies Ltd., which also developed novelty and premium items for businesses and corporations. At the suggestion of an associate, Alfred Holdsworth, who happened to be a Disney licensee in New Zealand, Neil met Australian Disney representative Wal Granger. Soon after, on October 4th, 1964, Neil was named Disney’s sole representative in New Zealand.
Neil’s wife Jenny recalled, “When Neil first began, there was very little Disney merchandise to be found in New Zealand. He built up the market very much, however, from the moment he took on the task.” As a result, Neil’s name eventually became synonymous with the Company.
As Roy Disney said, “Neil was a great promoter in New Zealand and was thought of by everyone there as ‘Disney.’”
His efforts soon spread to Australia as well, when Disney licensees in New Zealand and Australia began to share pre-production costs for producing dies, molds, film positives, and more. Neil worked with Granger to help develop promotions used by licensees on both sides of the Tasman Sea, including miniature Disney comic books used as premiums with the sale of gasoline at service stations. Similar promotions followed for Wheaties cereal foods and Chelsea Tea, which printed Disney comic strips on their packets.
After devoting 25 years to building Disney’s presence in New Zealand, Neil retired in 1989. Neil passed away on February 6, 1994 in Auckland.