(Pictured above to the right, Richard Fleischer)
Every Disney fan remembers the dramatic squid attack in Walt Disney’s classic motion picture 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It certainly proved memorable for the film’s director Richard Fleischer, who once recalled its dramatic staging challenges: “The squid that had been constructed was totally inadequate,” he said. “It looked completely phony; pieces were falling off it.
“After we spent a lot of money and time shooting it, Walt and I finally decided to stop and go on to something else, while giving his geniuses a chance to revamp the creature.
“I was talking to the writer and we realized the concept was wrong. When we first did the sequence, it was done on a flat, calm sea at sunset, and everything was very clear; you could see the mechanics of the thing. We decided to stage the attack at night, during a storm at sea, so we had spray and wave and great excitement, while obscuring the action.”
The son of animation pioneer Max Fleischer, who brought Betty Boop, Popeye, Superman, and other popular characters to the screen, Richard was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 8, 1916. He studied drama at Yale School of Drama and joined New York’s RKO-Pathé News in 1942, where he wrote newsreel commentaries and directed two-reel wartime documentaries for the This Is America series. He also wrote and produced Flicker Flashbacks, shorts compiled from silent film.
His successes won him a ticket to the RKO studio in Hollywood, where Richard directed a series of suspenseful B-film noirs, including 1948’s Bodyguard, based on a story co-written by Robert Altman, followed by The Clay Pigeon in 1949, and Armored Car Robbery in 1950. The Narrow Margin, his 1952 thriller set aboard a train, is considered a classic in moviemaking today; in 1947, he co-produced the Oscar®-winning documentary feature Design for Death.
After directing The Happy Time, a 1952 charmer starring Bobby Driscoll, who had earlier starred in such Disney films as Song of the South and Treasure Island, Richard received a call to meet his father’s arch rival Walt Disney at his Studio.
Richard recalls, “I was completely taken aback. I couldn’t understand why he’d selected me to direct 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I said, ‘I’d love to do this picture, but I’d like to talk with my father, first, knowing the competitive relationship you’ve both had.”
“Walt agreed. I called my father in New York that night and told him the story. He said, ‘Of course you must take that job without any question. Just do one thing. Give a message to Walt for me, tell him that he’s got great taste in directors.’”
Even today, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remains one of Disney’s most ambitious live-action films. After its 1954 release, Richard went on to direct many other big movies, including The Vikings (1958), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Doctor Dolittle (1967), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Soylent Green (1973), and more.
In 1993, Richard published his autobiography Just Tell Me When to Cry; in 2001, he appeared in the documentary Walt Disney: The Man Behind the Myth.
Richard Fleischer passed away on March 25, 2006, in Woodland Hills, California.