More the Merrier
Some critics of Walt Disney’s Story of Robin Hood were surprised by the casting of Richard Todd as the outlaw. They said it flaunted a Hollywood tradition by making Robin Hood a sturdy medium-sized man. In place they said, of the long-legged athlete, head and shoulders above all his rivals mentally and physically.
It had been the legendry cartoon producer himself, who had decided on the Dublin born actor. Todd was invited to Burbank in November 1950 and was given a personal tour by Walt Disney of the acres of sound stages and rows of drawing offices, where the animators were busy sketching.
He seemed to know every single one of the workforce, Todd remembers, every where he went he was greeted with ‘Hi Walt’, and he replied, ‘Hi! Jack-or Fred-or Art-or Lou!’
Eventually, Richard Todd continued in his autobiography 'Caught In The Act', we arrived in his office, a large panelled comfy room with a bar at one end. Before we settled down to talk, Walt proudly showed me how, at the touch of a button, the bar became a soda-fountain for youngsters. He adored children, and delighted in surprising them.
Walt Disney introduced his senior live-action producer, Perce Pearce to Richard Todd and outlined his ideas for the planned film. But Todd was doubtful:
With images of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn in my mind, I simply could not see it as a vehicle for me. I was not physically built to play a larger-than-life swashbuckler, and I could not see myself swinging from the same Sherwood family tree as the mighty Flynn.
Above all, I considered myself an ‘actor’; not for me the Lincoln Green equivalent of Tarzan.
But Walt Disney was very persuasive and explained that his Robin would be as a quick-thinking welter-weight, not a ponderous heavyweight. But Todd remained unsure.
There was a series of ‘agonised phone calls’ from Todd’s agent in California, Milton Pickman. He told the British actor that it would firstly, be a big international movie and secondly that it would pull in a huge world-wide audience of youngsters, probably seeing their first screen programme, to whom Robin Hood would be a hero for ever. Richard Todd remained unsure and to give himself time he promised to read the new script as soon as it was ready.
After Christmas 1950, Todd had read the latest version of the Robin Hood script and liked it. I was beginning to enjoy the thought of larking about in the forest with a band of merrie outlaws-subject to one proviso: that I should not be doubled by a stunt-man in any of the action scenes. I felt that if I could do the stunts myself, however clumsily, then they would be much more believable. Besides, although perhaps not a very practical attitude for a professional actor, it was a small matter of pride-what would my ex-Airborne friends think if they knew that I had been standing around watching somebody else do the dirty work!
In mid January 1951 Walt Disney’s producer, Perce Pearce arrived back in London. Now that I had finally made up my mind, Todd said, I was thrilled at the prospect of working for the great Disney organisation.
A meeting was arranged at his suite at the Dorchester Hotel with Richard Todd and Maud Spector, the leading British Independent casting director. In the afternoon Todd agreed to play Robin Hood and they spent a couple of hours going through lists of candidates for parts in the film. My only contribution, Todd says, was to suggest James Robertson Justice as Little John and this turned out to be a good idea.
Filming was due to start on 30th April 1951. A gymnasium was set up at Pinewood Studios and under the tutelage of top British stunt man, Paddy Ryan, Todd worked out almost every day:
I practised back flips and tumbles that I hadn’t tried since my early army days. Rupert Evans, a former Champion at Arms of the British Army, coached me in sword-play and he and Paddy worked with me throughout the picture. In addition, I had hours of tuition in archery and practice on horseback, with and without bows and arrows. I may not have been the greatest celluloid Robin Hood, but I was certainly going to be the fittest!
Ken Annakin, Disney’s director on ‘Robin Hood,’ described Richard Todd as a .......popular British stage actor, who was no acrobatic movie idol like Errol Flynn or John Barrymore. He was, in fact short like Alan Ladd, and often had to be stood on an apple box, or walk on a plank beside Maid Marion, so that one didn’t notice the discrepancy in height. But Richard was a good trouper.
Nearly sixty years later, we seem to have come full circle! The BBC’s new television series of Robin Hood has had similar mutterings from critics about the hero being a bit on the puny side! One newspaper reporter wrote that the actor playing the outlaw needs to get down the gym and eat some pies!
These harsh words must have affected Jonas Armstrong who plays the leader of the merry men. He admits that when he saw a picture of himself during the launch of the first series, “I looked a bit thin. So I got a personal trainer and I’ve put on a stone and a half in muscle. I now train four times a week and I feel a lot fitter. The stunt guys have been telling me: ‘You look much more confident in your body!’”