Chuck Ross

As NBC Prepares ‘Peter Pan’ for the Holidays, the Story of How Disney Prevented an Actress Who May Have Made the Greatest Peter Pan Ever — Audrey Hepburn — From Playing the Part. [And Laurence Olivier Would Have Played Opposite Her as Captain Hook!] Plus, Who Mary Martin Said Played Peter Pan the Best

Aug 20, 2014

As I was researching some information about Mary Martin and her role as Peter Pan, I came across this surprising material with which I wasn’t familiar. A report by A.H. Weiler from the May 31, 1964, edition of The New York Times:

“The news is that Sir James M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ will be brought to the screen again with none other than Audrey Hepburn portraying the lad who refuses to grow up. George Cukor will direct (thus continuing an entente cordiale formed during the production of ‘My Fair Lady,’ which will be unveiled here on Oct. 21) and Mel Ferrer, Miss Hepburn’s husband, will produce the independent venture. No scenarist or precise production date yet.

“How did it all happen? Reached in Hollywood last week, Mr. Cukor simply revealed that he had gone to visit the couple in Madrid recently to discuss ‘doing another film together, which we wanted to do since the completion of “My Fair Lady” [filmed mostly toward the end of 1963].’”

Ferrer suggested “Peter Pan” “and that did it,” Cukor told The Times. Cukor “then proceeded to obtain film rights from London’s Great Ormond Street [Children’s] Hospital,” to which Barrie gave the rights to the play. Barrie originally wrote “Peter Pan” as a play in 1904.

I was then able to pick up the trail of what had happened in an article I found published almost 50 years later. It’s by Chris Hastings, from the Dec. 27, 2008, edition of the U.K newspaper The Telegraph.

Hastings based his article on “confidential documents in the [Ormond Street] hospital’s own archive.”

The first bit of juicy information Hastings found out was that the Cukor project was also to star Laurence Olivier as Captain Hook.

Then Hasting wrote: “The London hospital … had hoped a new cinema version of the classic children’s story would generate tens of thousands of pounds towards patient care. … But the $10 million movie … never got off the ground because Disney’s Hollywood studio threatened legal action, claiming it owned all the cinematic rights to the play.”

Way back in 1939, Hastings wrote, Disney paid £5,000 for the rights to make an animated movie version of “Peter Pan,” though the movie wasn’t ready for release until 1953.

Hastings then explained that two years before Cukor approached the hospital about doing a live-action movie version of Peter Pan, “in 1962, Walt Disney had offered the hospital £10,000 for the live action film rights to Peter Pan, plus one per cent of the gross box office receipts of the animated version which it wanted to re-release.” (Using an Internet calculator, it appears that 10,000 British Sterling pounds in 1962 would be the equivalent of about $327,000 today.)

Hastings added: “The hospital initially accepted the offer but the following year called it ‘unfair’ and proposed an alternative contract which would have given it a greater share of box office receipts, TV sales revenue and merchandising royalties.”

This about-face really upset Walt Disney’s brother, Roy O. Disney, who was largely in charge of the financial operations of the studio. Hastings said Roy wrote a note back to the hospital in March 1963, saying that he was “shocked” to hear that the hospital wanted to renege on the deal, and adding: “We hope that even at this late stage the [hospital’s] governors, in reconsideration, will come to the conclusion that nothing — not even their desire to serve charity — justifies bad faith of this kind.”

Whether or not Cukor knew about these earlier discussions between the hospital and Disney, Hastings did not say.

But he did say that Cukor was “furious” that Disney was trying to stop his “Peter Pan” project and wrote to the hospital in August 1964: “Quite apart from the serious inconvenience that Disney has caused us all, I find his behavior unconscionable. [Walt] cannot honestly believe that he has any legal or moral claim to the title.

“He must or should recognize that he’s trying to appropriate something for himself that belongs to a hospital for sick children. I don’t think he’d cut a very good figure, in his eyes or anyone else’s, if this was generally known. All the more so because he represents ‘wholesome entertainment’ to the world.”

In a postscript that was handwritten, Hastings noted, “Cukor adds: ‘We’ll stick right with it until we succeed!’”

Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be. The legal case wasn’t concluded for five more years. By that time, 1969, Walt Disney himself had been dead for three years. And although the hospital prevailed against Disney, Cukor, Hepburn and Olivier had all moved on to other projects.

The hospital recovered its legal expenses plus £14,000 in compensation, Hastings writes. The Internet calculator we used says that compensation would be the equivalent of about $356,000 today.

Though Audrey Hepburn never made it to Never Never Land, Mary Martin did. I have no idea whether the two ever met. I do know that Martin turned down the part of Eliza in the original stage version of “My Fair Lady,’ which then went to Julie Andrews. Hepburn starred in the film version of “My Fair Lady,” although she was reportedly furious that much of her singing in the film ended up being dubbed by Marni Nixon.

Martin, who was a true giant of the American stage, didn’t have much of a movie career. She made most of her movies between 1940 and 1943.

In her 1976 autobiography, “My Heart Belongs,” Martin, who died of cancer at age 76 in 1990, wrote, “In the early days of Hollywood one of my closest friends was Jean Arthur. [In fact, Martin named Arthur the godmother to one of her children.] One of our bonds was that we both adored Peter Pan. She and her husband, [movie producer and writer] Frank Ross, and [Mary Martin’s husband, Richard Halliday] and I often were invited to costume parties; and Jean and I both always wanted to go as Peter Pan. It got so bad we would call each other up to declare our intentions — whoever called first got to go as Peter. … We vowed that we, too, would play [Peter] somewhere, someday.”

As it happened, it was Arthur who got to play Peter Pan first. And Martin said it was Arthur who played Peter Pan best. Martin wrote in her autobiography, “She was absolutely wonderful. I hate to admit it, but she IS Peter Pan. She is youth, joy, freedom, all the things Peter tells Captain Hook when Hook asks, “Pan, who and what are you?”

If you are someone who has fallen in love — or will fall in love — with the golden age of talking movies of the 1930s and the 1940s, you’ll eventually get around to Jean Arthur and the way she talks. In that regard she is a singular force in the movies. Her voice is her most distinctive feature. Her most famous role was co-starring with Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in 1939. She plays Clarissa Saunders. Her voice is all over the Beltway, crackling here, croaking there, a cynic’s bitter delight one moment, optimistically sympathetic the next. How she ever accomplished all that is beyond me, but nobody in the history of movies — especially in comedies — has ever delivered lines like Jean Arthur.

jean_arthur01Jean Arthur in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

As it turns out, she also seemed to reject the trappings of Hollywood stardom more than any other actor of her stature. Arthur made the reclusive Garbo look like the most social of debutantes, reporters noted at the time. Compared with Garbo, Arthur’s social calendar was as lively as that of an ascetic monk.

Here’s this about Arthur from “Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew,” John Oller’s stunningly perceptive and highly readable 1997 biography: “All her life, Arthur had wanted to play Peter Pan, and when she finally got the chance — at the age of almost 50 — she enjoyed a Broadway run that broke all previous records for any production of the play, and indeed ran longer than the later and better-known version starring her friend Mary Martin. [Arthur’s Broadway record for most performances in “Peter Pan” was later broken by the 1979 production starring Sandy Duncan.] Not only did Arthur achieve her greatest triumph in ‘Peter Pan,’ but she also found, in the whimsical and androgynous title character, her true kindred spirit.

“ ‘Nobody is going to catch me lady, and make me a man,’ was Arthur’s favorite line from the play, and it might easily have been uttered by her with the genders reversed. But the meaning of J.M. Barrie’s play, for Arthur, went beyond the literal story of the boy who refused to grow up.”

Indeed, Arthur told The New York Times in May 1950 — about two weeks after the show opened on Broadway — “people are so desperate, they do want so much to get away from reality. There’s so much negativism in the world. I think Barrie sensed it even then.” The Cold War was raging and the Korean War would break out a month later.

Biographer Oller writes that Arthur once said about “Peter Pan,” “It means nonconformity and freedom of the imagination and the individual.” And while she was in the play Arthur told a reporter, Oller says, “If you can hang on to your individuality, hold tight to your freedom, and not get squigged-out as you grow older, then and only then are you mature.”

What I really like about that last line is that anyone who has ever seen Arthur on-screen can totally picture her saying “squigged-out” in that “scrunchy” voice of hers.

Oller adds that Arthur also said, “People who aren’t free like Peter, or at least hunger to be free, aren’t aware of the adventure of living. They’re walking around dead.”

How Arthur landed the part of Peter Pan on Broadway makes a terrific story as well. Most of this is also from Oller’s book, was well as from newspaper accounts written back in those days.

In late 1948, a man named Peter Lawrence, who was in his late 20s and worked at CBS in the new field of television as an associate producer, had heard that Joan Fontaine wanted to play Peter Pan on Broadway. Previously Lawrence had been the Broadway stage manager of three shows. He then negotiated with the Ormond Street Hospital in London for the rights to the play.

He got the hospital to agree to allow him to add music to the play, and Lawrence then engaged Leonard Bernstein — whom he knew — to do that.

Lawrence quickly found out that Fontaine didn’t really want to play Peter Pan on stage, which triggered a year-long search by Lawrence to find the right person for the title role.

He interviewed men and women, stars of stage and screen: Margaret Sullavan, Gene Kelly, Beatrice Lillie and Mickey Rooney. Lawrence had heard that Mary Martin might be interested, but she had just began performing in a new musical, “South Pacific,” which became a mega-hit, preventing her from taking the role. Finally, a dancer, Vera Zorina, was signed for the part. Then she backed out.

For Lawrence, time was running out on his option to produce the play. Says Arthur biographer Oller, “Then, one day, Lawrence received a call from agent Maynard Morris, who said he had someone the producer would be very interested in for Peter, but that it had to be kept secret.”

When the agent finally told Lawrence that the mystery person was Jean Arthur, Oller writes, “Lawrence had to admit that though her name had never crossed his mind before, she was a logical choice. Morris then surprised him by saying that Arthur … already had her costume and wanted to audition. Before committing herself to the project, Arthur wanted to make certain that a nearly 50-year-old woman could play a 12-year-old boy. She hired out the Royale Theatre for a day, got into costume, recited a few lines. … ‘It felt wonderful,’ Arthur reported. ‘I was at home on stage for the first time in my life. Peter is my maturity.’ ”

The idea of “Peter Pan” on Broadway in 1950 starring Jean Arthur was met with some skepticism in the press. Writes Oller, “The New York Herald Tribune scoffed that it ‘sounds like a pipe dream.’ ”

Here’s why, says Oller: “Peter Pan” had last opened in New York in 1928, and 22 years later “many thought it would prove too whimsical for hardened modern audiences. It also arrived ‘cold’ on Broadway, without having gone through the customary out-of-town tryouts, which Lawrence’s budget would not allow. Finally, its star was seen as a moody, unreliable woman who had not appeared before a Broadway audience in 16 years, and whose last stage outing [five years earlier] had been a fiasco.”

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that. At the end of 1945, Arthur was deep into out-of-town rehearsals for a new comedy that was headed for Broadway. It was called “Born Yesterday.” In Philadelphia, Arthur left the show due to “nervous exhaustion,” writes Oller. She was replaced with a then relatively unknown actress, Judy Holliday. The show made Holliday a major star. Oller adds: “The real reasons for Arthur’s leaving ‘Born Yesterday’ remain obscure.”

“Peter Pan” opened on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre on 45th Street on April 24, 1950. (The theater is still used today.) It was a huge critical and popular success. Wrote the estimable critic Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times, “Miss Arthur has created a pleasant, winning, spontaneous make-believe character, and after a second or two the audience is hers entirely.”

Clive Barnes in the New York Herald Tribune called Arthur’s role “a bravura performance.” William Hawkins, in the New York World-Telegram and Sun, wrote, “Jean Arthur drops stardust on an entrancing Peter Pan. … It is a triumphant evening … for Miss Arthur.”

And this from Lewis Funke in The New York Times: “For Miss Arthur, of course, the triumph was doubly delicious. Her decision to brave Broadway again was made after much soul-searching. She refused all interviews prior to the opening, insisting that she would have to first prove her mettle. She even carried her reticence right into the cast notes in The Playbill, where although her name leads the rest, she refused to permit anything more to be said than: ‘Miss Arthur is one of the best-known actresses on the American screen. Her present contract with Paramount Studios permits her to do plays and pictures independent of this studio. Her favorite picture of all time is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and she is glad to have been a part of it. She feels the same about “Peter Pan,” the play.’ ”

I should probably stop here, but I must add one more story about Arthur and this production. Over the years I’ve heard countless anecdotes about Hollywood and Hollywood stars, but this one remains, chillingly, one of the saddest I’ve ever heard.

It involves Jean Arthur and Shirley Temple. In the summer of 1950 Temple was 22 years old, and the once most popular movie star in the world was facing the reality that her most popular years were behind her.

By August of 1950, the New York summer had turned extremely hot, writes Oller, and Arthur was getting tired in “Peter Pan.” She wanted to take some time off. She told producer Lawrence that a number of Broadway stars were taking off, including her friend Mary Martin in “South Pacific.” Lawrence noted that Martin had been in that show a lot longer and besides, he had not built into the show’s budget a vacation for Arthur.

Neither side would budge, and the arguments turned ugly, Oller writes. Lawrence began to search for a replacement for Arthur — not a vacation replacement, but a full replacement.

The following is from Shirley Temple Black’s 1988 autobiography “Child Star.”

Flying in from New York, Lawrence proposed that I replace Jean Arthur in the lead role. She was a brilliant actress but her emotional seesaws were causing him fits.

I reread J.M. Barrie’s original [play]. Peter Pan had opted out of the cycle of growing up in favor of perpetual childhood. Fox had concocted just that program for little Shirley. It didn’t work then, but this Peter had stopped the clock.

Neither yes nor no, I told Lawrence. I’ll let you know.

[Next, Temple found herself dropped by her agents at MCA.]

Within hours I was on the phone to producer Lawrence of Peter Pan. “Wonderful,” he enthused. “Jean is ill again. We prefer you to her understudy, Betty Fields. When can we fly you back?”

Apparently, Arthur was aware what Lawrence had in mind regarding a replacement and that I was in her New York audience that night. Her eyes kept sweeping the audience from the stage in a purposeful manner. Midway through the performance she suffered another of her debilitating attacks, was removed by ambulance, and Fields came on to finish.

My phone was jangling as I reentered the hotel room.

“Don’t take Peter Pan away from me, please!” cried the voice, without introduction.

“Stop. Who is this?” I interjected, guessing full well the identity.

“You know who I am,” the voice cried. “I’m Jean. I’m Peter Pan.” Then she hung up.

In the end, Lawrence and Arthur settled their differences and she stayed in the show. A few months later Shirley Temple, 22, announced her retirement from show business.

Next time I’ll talk about Peter Pan, Hopalong Cassidy, and why for millions of us, Mary Martin is the best Peter Pan ever.

Jean Arthur as Peter PanJean Arthur, almost unrecognizable, as Peter Pan



  1. Mary Martin defined the part for all time.

  2. Thanks Chuck for researching and posting this wonderful (and juicy) story! To me, Mary Martin will always be synonymous with Peter Pan. But it is fascinating to learn the back story.

Your Comment

Email (will not be published)