By Kevin Kern, Walt Disney Archives
Sometimes, the most interesting historical rediscoveries we make in the Walt Disney Archives come when you least expect it, usually while you’re not looking for what you find. Being a fan of all things Star Wars, I just about fell over when, while perusing a box of Disney studio Casting Department files from the 1950s and 1960s, noticed a very familiar name amidst the box’s folder titles, a name most space saga fans would immediately recognize – “Peter Cushing.” Unfamiliar with what his Disney credits may have been at that time (if any), I removed the folder from the box, and was greeted with small, but rather neat collection of documents outlining an interesting aspect regarding the development of a completely unrelated Walt-era Disney television project – The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1964).
A little less than two and a half years before the project would hit American airwaves for Walt, Cushing wrote to the Disney studio pitching himself as the potential lead – “Dr. Syn” – for the Scarecrow story. Along with his letter, he included a proposed story outline for the title, highlighting what he saw as the strengths of the character’s tale. Interestingly, this occurred only a few short months after Walt Disney Productions had obtained the story rights to eight of author Russell Thorndike’s Christopher Syn stories in early February 1961 from their original publishers, New York’s Abelard-Schuman and London’s Rich & Cowan.
While Walt had put the television project into development on February 9, 1961, he had already assigned screenplay work at the time Cushing’s letter was received. Given that the studio was still a long way off from beginning casting, let alone filming, there wasn’t much to do with Cushing’s impromptu, if not gracious, offer. As was standard studio policy at the time, when Walt assigned a writer to develop treatments and screenplay material, he frequently insisted that they take a fresh approach to the topic, refraining from citing or including pre-existing material – fresh-starts in this way usually were a “must” for the entertainment maven’s creative development process.
In light of Cushing’s kind correspondence, the studio responded in early October of the same year expressing gratitude for the thoughtfulness in contacting them. Eventually, the project would turn into a three-part television show for Walt, directed by James Neilson, and airing in February 1964 with actor Patrick McGoohan in the title role. All was not lost for Cushing’s hopes, however. George Lucas’ future Grand Moff Tarkin would go on to portray a character based on the same “Doctor Syn” source material in Hammer Film Productions’ Night Creatures in June 1962, about a year and a half before Walt’s staging would make it to the small screen. Charming to the last, indeed.