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9 Famous People Who Started as Disney Park Characters

A couple of years ago, I did a post on celebrities who got their first tastes of the entertainment biz by working at one of the Disney Parks, whether they did tricks at the Magic Shop (Steve Martin) or cracked wise as a Jungle Cruise skipper (John Lasseter). But which celebs might you actually spot next to your terrified little brother in your family photo album? Here are a few.
 
1. Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson kept pretty busy at Disney World in Orlando - he was Aladdin, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and Prince Eric in the Little Mermaid show. I think I was in fourth grade when I visited what was then Disney-MGM Studios; I was super excited to see Donatello roaming the fake streets of New York. When I stood in front of him so my mom could snap a picture, he put his three-fingered hand on my shoulder and squeezed so hard I’m actually wincing a little in the picture. Was that you, Kevin Richardson? Not cool.

2. Check out young Michelle Pfeiffer. You can totally see her as Alice in Wonderland, can’t you? One of her first jobs in entertainment was portraying Disney’s version of the Lewis Carroll ingenue in the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland.

3. Kevin Costner met his first wife, Cindy, at work in the Anaheim park. Cindy was busy signing autographs and posing for pictures as Snow White while Kevin apparently told terrible jokes on the Jungle Cruise. You can tell he's been influenced by the cheesy script - when a reporter once asked him where he found the guts to ask Snow White for a date, he replied, “Easy - I was her Prince Charming.” Unlike Snow White and her Prince, however, Kevin and Cindy divorced in 1994.

4. A lot of people think it’s air conditioned inside of those big costumes, but Wayne Brady is here to tell you it’s not. “Inside that costume it was about 90,000 degrees,” he said. A 16-year-old Brady was playing Tigger in a parade at one of the Orlando parks when he passed out from the heat. “I should have paced myself. But I fell flat on my face. They carried me off with my recorded voice still going, ‘Ooh-hoo-hoo!”

5. Alyson Reed has kind of come full circle with Disney - she played Alice at Disneyland back in the late ‘70s, but these days she’s better known as Mrs. Darbus from the High School Musical movies. In between her Disney stints, she had a ton of parts in some pretty notable TV shows and also did some Broadway.

6. I don’t tend to remember Miss Americas, really, but for some reason I remember Leanza Cornett. I think it might be the distinctive name. Anyway, before Leanza wore the sash and tiara of Miss America in 1993, she was the first live-action actress to play Ariel from The Little Mermaid. She didn’t sign autographs in the park, though - she played Ariel in the Voyage of the Little Mermaid show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. What’s slightly odd is that the next Miss Florida also played Ariel in the same show after Leanza left. Is there a Mermaid Conspiracy?!

7. Remember Katherine Harris of the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida? Rumor has it that she played Snow White at Disney World when she was a teenager. The Washington Post actually called Disney for verification of this fascinating nugget of information, but they would only confirm that Harris was a “pageant hostess” at the park from 1973-1975. The Disney spokesperson then added, “We do not generally reveal costumed character identities."

8. British actor Kevin Sacre, probably best known for the British soap Hollyoaks, honed his acting skills playing Aladdin at Disneyland Paris in the late ‘90s. He should get together with Kevin Richardson and compare notes.

9. If the name Alexis Mateo doesn’t ring a bell, maybe that’s because you haven’t been watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. Alexis, the second runner up in season three, apparently worked for Disney as a character for five years, but wouldn’t reveal any more information than that. In fact, as of January 2011, Alexis was still a seasonal cast member there. Hmm. Any guesses? Here’s a picture.

Honorable mention: Writer Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux, The Magician’s Elephant) worked at Disney and really wanted to be a chipmunk. Alas, she said the maximum height to portray Chip or Dale was 4’10” and she was automatically disqualified.

I’ve also heard but haven’t been able to confirm that Geena Davis once played Goofy. She certainly has the height for it... anyone know if that’s an urban legend or the real deal?

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13 Great Facts About Bad Lieutenant
Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Bad Lieutenant can be accused of many things, but one charge you can't level against it is false advertising. Harvey Keitel's title character, whose name is never given, is indeed a bad, bad lieutenant: corrupt, sleazy, drug-addled, irresponsible, and lascivious, all while he's on the job. (Imagine what his weekends must be like!)

Abel Ferrara's nightmarish character study was controversial when it was released 25 years ago today, and rated NC-17 for its graphic nudity (including a famous glimpse at Lil’ Harvey), unsettling sexual violence, and frank depiction of drug use. The film packs a wallop, no doubt. Here's some behind-the-scenes info to help you cope with it.

1. THE PLACID WOMAN WHO HELPS THE LIEUTENANT FREEBASE HEROIN WROTE THE MOVIE.

That's Zoë Tamerlis Lund, who starred in Abel Ferrara's revenge-exploitation thriller Ms. 45 (1981) more than a decade earlier, when she was 17 years old. She and Ferrara are credited together for writing Bad Lieutenant, though she always insisted that wasn't the case. "I wrote this alone," she said. "Abel is a wonderful director, but he's not a screenwriter. She said elsewhere that she "wrote every word of that screenplay," though everyone agrees the finished movie included a lot of improvisation. Lund was a fascinating, tragic character herself—a musical prodigy who became an enthusiastic and unapologetic user of heroin before switching to cocaine in the mid-1990s. She died of heart failure in 1999 at age 37.

2. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN WAS SUPPOSED TO STAR IN IT.

Christopher Walken had starred in Ferrara's previous film, King of New York (1990), and was set to play the lead in Bad Lieutenant before pulling out at almost the last minute. Ferrara was shocked. "[Walken] says, 'You know, I don't think I'm right for it.' Which is, you know, a fine thing to say, unless it's three weeks from when you're supposed to start shooting," Ferrara said. "It definitely caught me by surprise. It put me in terminal shock, actually." Harvey Keitel replaced him (though not without difficulty; see below), and the film's editor, Anthony Redman, thought Keitel was a better choice anyway. "Chris is too elegant for the part," he said. "Harvey is not elegant." 

3. HARVEY KEITEL'S INITIAL REACTION TO THE SCRIPT WAS NOT PROMISING.

"When we gave [Keitel] the script the first time, he read about five pages and threw it in the garbage," Ferrara said. Keitel's recollection was a little more diplomatic. As he told Roger Ebert, "I read a certain amount of pages and I put it down. I said, 'There's no way I'm gonna make this movie.' And then I asked myself, 'How often am I a lead in a movie? Read it, maybe I can salvage something from it …' When I read the part about the nun, I understood why Abel wanted to make it."

4. IT WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE FUNNY.


Lionsgate Home Entertainment

"It was always, in my mind, a comedy," Ferrara said. He cited the scene where the Lieutenant pulls the teenage girls over as a specific example of how Christopher Walken would have played it, and how Harvey Keitel changed it. "The lieutenant was going to end up dancing in the streets with the girls as the sun came up. They'd be wearing his gun belt and hat, and they'd have the radio on, you know what I mean? But oh my God, Harvey, he turned it into this whole other thing." Boy, did he. 

5. THAT SCENE WITH THE TEENAGE GIRLS HAD A REAL-LIFE ELEMENT THAT MADE IT EVEN CREEPIER.

One of the young women was Keitel's nanny. Ferrara: "I said, 'You sure you want to do this with your babysitter?' He says, 'Yeah, I want to try something.'"

6. MUCH OF IT WAS FILMED GUERRILLA-STYLE.

Like many indie-minded directors of low-budget films, Ferrara didn't bother with permits most of the time. "We weren't permitted on any of this stuff," editor Anthony Redman admitted. "We just walked on and started shooting." For the scene where a strung-out Lieutenant walks through a bumpin' nightclub, they sent Keitel through an actual, functioning club during peak operating hours.

7. A GREAT DEAL OF THE DIALOGUE AND ACTION WERE MADE UP ON THE FLY.

The script was only about 65 pages at first, which would have made for about a 65-minute movie. "It left a lot of room for improvisation," producer Randy Sabusawa said, "but the ideas were pretty distilled. They were there."

Script supervisor Karen Kelsall said supervising the script was a challenge. "Abel didn't stick to a script," she said. "Abel used a script as a way to get the money to make a movie, and then the script was kind of—we called it the daily news. It changed every day. It changed in the middle of scenes." Ferrara was unapologetic about the script's brevity. "The idea of wanting 90 pages ... is ridiculous."

8. AND THERE WERE EVEN MORE IDEAS THAT THEY DIDN'T USE.

Ferrara said a scene that epitomized the movie for him—even though he never got around to filming it—was one where the Lieutenant robs an electronics store, leaves, then gets a call about a robbery at the electronics store. He responds in an official capacity (they don't recognize him), takes a statement, walks out, and throws the statement in the garbage. "And that to me is the Bad Lieutenant, you know?" Ferrara said. 

9. THE BASEBALL PLAYOFF SERIES IS FICTIONAL.

The Mets have battled the Dodgers for the National League championship once, in 1988. (The Dodgers beat 'em and went on to win the World Series.) For the narrative Ferrara wanted—the Mets coming back from a 3-0 deficit to win the pennant—he had to make it up. He used footage from real Mets-Dodgers games (including Darryl Strawberry's three-run homer from a game in July 1991) and added fictional play-by-play. But the statistics were accurate: no team had ever been down by three in a best-of-seven series and then come back to win. (It's happened once since then, when the 2004 Red Sox did it.)

10. THEY HAD HELP FROM THE COP WHO SOLVED A SIMILAR CASE.

The disgusting crime at the center of the film (we won't dwell on it) was inspired by a real-life incident from 1981, which mayor Ed Koch called "the most heinous crime in the history of New York City." The street cop who solved it, Bo Dietl, advised Ferrara on the film and had an on-screen role as one of the detectives in our Lieutenant's circle of friends.

11. THEY DESECRATED THE CHURCH AS RESPECTFULLY AS THEY COULD.

Production designer Charles Lagola had his team cover the church’s altar and other surfaces with plastic wrap, then painted the graffiti and other defacements on the plastic.

12. IT WAS RATED NC-17 IN THEATERS, WITH AN R-RATED VERSION FOR HOME VIDEO.

Blockbuster and some of the other retail chains wouldn't carry NC-17 or unrated films, so sometimes studios would produce edited versions. (See also: Requiem for a Dream.) The tamer version of Bad Lieutenant was five minutes and 19 seconds shorter, with parts of the rape scene, the drug-injecting scene, and much of the car interrogation scene excised.

13. THE "SEQUEL" HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT, NOR DID FERRARA APPROVE OF IT.


First Look International

Movie buffs were baffled in 2009, when Werner Herzog directed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage. It sounds like a sequel (or a remake), but in fact had no connection at all to the earlier film except that both were produced by Edward R. Pressman. Herzog said he'd never seen Ferrara's movie and wanted to change the title (Pressman wouldn't let him); Ferrara, outspoken as always, initially wished fiery death on everyone involved. Ferrara and Herzog finally met at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where Herzog initiated a conversation about the whole affair and Ferrara expressed his frustration cordially. 

Additional sources:
DVD interviews with Abel Ferrara, Anthony Redman, Randy Sabusawa, and Karen Kelsall.

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Big Questions
How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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Getty Images

The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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