The Fascinating Real-Life Inspirations Behind Disney Villains


The Disney brand is known for its attention to detail. Since the company was founded in 1923, the Mouse House has taken great care when it comes to the finer points, including those of its animated characters, changing the way fantasy films are viewed and created. Technology has evolved, but Disney still aims to base its animated figures on real people, complete with personality quirks and naturalistic mannerisms. In the past, Disney animators often studied these real-life models acting out scenes from films for inspiration. With Disney’s Maleficent in theaters this weekend, starring Angelina Jolie as the eponymous, horned villainess, we decided to explore the fascinating real-life inspirations behind other Disney villains. These are the famous men and women who shaped some of Disney’s most iconic characters.

Eleanor Audley as Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty

Angelina Jolie isn’t the first live performer to don the horns as Disney’s Maleficent. Eleanor Audley, who voiced the character in 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, became the live-action model for Maleficent. Audley was a popular 1950’s television actress, and the studio put her haughty-sounding voice and severe expressions to good use. Animators studied Audley in costume (headdress, robes, and all) while creating the wicked character, bringing one of Disney’s greatest villains to life. Nine years earlier, Audley performed the role of the evil stepmother in the studio’s Cinderella, so she was rather adept at playing bad.

Bela Lugosi as Chernabog, Fantasia

Disney’s early abstract animated feature Fantasia sought inspiration from a variety of real-life references for its more than 500 animated characters. Hungarian-American actor Bela Lugosi, famous for his role in 1931’s Dracula and typecast as a horror villain, was ushered into the studio to provide reference poses for Chernabog, the demon from the Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria segment. Animator Bill Tytla wasn’t totally convinced Lugosi embodied the part, so he shot additional footage of fellow animator Wilfred Jackson, shirtless, acting as the demonic figure.

Hans Conried as Captain Hook, Peter Pan

Make Room for Daddy and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. star Hans Conried lent his voice to Disney’s 1953 film Peter Pan, playing the pirate who lost his left hand in battle, Captain Hook. The character originally appeared in Peter Pan creator J. M. Barrie’s 1904 staged version of the fantasy tale, followed by a 1911 novel. Reportedly, Conried studied the captain closely and arrived to the studio for a reference shoot already in costume. Animator Frank Thomas was so taken with the actor dressed in character that he based Hook’s appearance and mannerisms on Conried. At the time, Peter Pan was one of the studio’s most expensive endeavors, and Disney put out all the stops to ensure its characters were lifelike. Conried was so deeply involved with the creation of Hook that he often came to the villainous character’s defense. “He’s a much maligned character. If you read the lines with any sensibility at all, you must have an animus against Peter Pan who could fly, and took outrageous advantage of this one-armed man. Hook was a gentleman. Pan was not. His behavior was very bad form,” the actor once stated.

Divine as Ursula, The Little Mermaid

They have the same mole, the same hair, and the same makeup. Sassy sea witch Ursula from The Little Mermaid was modeled after legendary drag performer and John Waters muse, Divine. We don’t want to steal the spotlight from the Pink Flamingos star, but we felt compelled to note that the lavender-skinned sea diva was almost voiced by Golden Girls actress Bea Arthur. A Divine and Bea Arthur hybrid character: one of the greatest might-have-beens in film history.

Jeremy Irons as Scar, The Lion King

Jeremy Irons won the Academy Award for Best Actor as British socialite and accused murderer Claus von Bülow in 1990’s Reversal of Fortune. Hesitant to jump from a dramatic role to an animated feature, Irons initially turned down the part of Scar in Disney’s The Lion King — the tyrannical beast in the film. Eventually he was inspired to accept the role when the writers and animators incorporated Irons’ mannerisms into the part, particularly Irons as Von Bülow. They even gave Scar a line pulled from Reversal of Fortune: “You have no idea.” Animators also watched Irons in Louis Malle’s 1992 film Damage while shaping the character’s facial expressions.

Tallulah Bankhead as Cruella De Vil, One Hundred and One Dalmatians

Flamboyant, outspoken, and larger than life, actress Tallulah Bankhead was a natural fit for the inspiration behind the crazed Cruella De Vil. The bonne vivantes share a penchant for dangling cigarettes and glamorous clothes, but we’re happy to report that Bankhead’s antics never ventured into the realm of puppy kidnapping.

Joan Crawford as The Evil Queen, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

One of the most menacing Disney villains, Snow White’s Evil Queen (aka Queen Grimhilde) was modeled after a number of real-life sources, but her resemblance to young Joan Crawford is striking. Other models for the cruel royal reportedly included Queen Ayesha from the 1935 film She (“She who must be obeyed”); Princess Kriemhild in the 1924’s Die Nibelungen; Gale Sondergaard (and possibly Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich); and a statue at the Naumburg Cathedral depicting Uta von Ballenstedt, believed to be the most beautiful woman of Medieval Germany.

Jed Harris as The Big Bad Wolf, Three Little Pigs

According to English actor Laurence Olivier, famed Austrian-American theater producer, director, and writer Jed Harris was the inspiration behind the popular Big Bad Wolf in 1933’s Three Little Pigs. Olivier once called Harris “the most loathsome man he had ever met” and used Harris as the inspiration for his performance as Richard in the 1955 film Richard III.

Professor James Moriarty as Professor Ratigan, The Great Mouse Detective

Disney always took elaborate measures to ensure their characters were well-rounded and vivid. During the recording of 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective, animators sketched Vincent Price, the voice of the evil Professor Ratigan, to capture his dramatic gestures and poses for the film. But the character itself is based on Professor James Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes stories, recently portrayed by Jared Harris in the 2011 film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. The Holmes references are obvious to anyone who has picked up a book, but Disney went to great lengths to honor the literary characters, adding lines from the stories into the dialogue and more. The Holmes archenemy even falls to his death, just as he does in the books.

Conrad Veidt as Jaffar as Jafar, Aladdin

“The most compelling character, as he should be, is the villain Jaffar, played by the German emigre Conrad Veidt with hypnotic eyes and a cruel laugh,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the 1940 film The Thief of Bagdad. Disney borrowed liberally from the movie for the studio’s 1992 picture Aladdin. Veidt’s looks and notable performance became the basis for Disney’s power-hungry villain.