Disney’s “Full Court President” (An Oral History)
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Walt Disney company produced what seems like hundreds of live-action movies.
Many of these films feature an underdog sports team that gets help from an unlikely source: the “flying rubber” of The Absentminded Professor, a football-kicking mule in Gus, or a cereal that helps a young Kurt Russell become The Strongest Man in the World.
Then there’s Full Court President.
Originally slated for release in the winter of 1970, Full Court President tells the story of Kevin Callahan, a troubled young fan of the fictional San Diego Sparks basketball team who accidentally summons the ghost of George Washington. Kevin must help Washington return to the afterlife, while also assisting the struggling Sparks.
But Disney executives scrapped the movie midway through production, with reactions to the script ranging from “hard to follow” to “unsettling” to “the worst thing I’ve ever read.”
Although no footage of Full Court President has ever surfaced, pieces of the screenplay have floated around the internet for years.
I became curious about how this movie came together, and how it came apart, and began tracking down some of the players involved.
I’ve used my interviews with those people, collected over the past few years, to piece together this oral history:
Kevin Halligan, son of Full Court President screenwriter Dwight Halligan: My dad was not…I don’t know how to say this…he wasn’t a well man. I mean, he’d had some success. He’d written a few Twilight Zone episodes. Then he came up with something called Cat Detectives for Disney in 1966.
But he could be distant. He would take long walks and never explain where he was going. He had a dollar bill — he said it was from his old paper route — taped to the wall of his office. He’d pass it on the way out the door, point to George Washington and say “Uh huh” and nod. My mom always said he was never right after Korea.
Joe Eckert, producer, Full Court President: At first, Dwight wanted nothing to do with Disney. He thought the studio screwed him over on Cat Detectives.
See, his original screenplay was about a “city run by cats,” where humans were the pets. The cats had schools, hospitals, a whole government and police force. Mr. Disney said the concept wouldn’t work and changed it to a story about a girl detective who solves crimes with the help of her cats. It was actually one of the last decisions Walt made before he died.
Sally Byrne, Dwight Halligan’s agent: Disney had a hit with Blackbeard’s Ghost in 1968, and I guess they wanted to do go back to that well. Joe Eckert heard Dwight had his own “ghost in the modern world” story and set up a meeting.
Frank Sanchez, director, Full Court President: It was the worst script I’d ever seen, and Halligan refused to change a letter. He insisted Washington’s ghost would — and I’m quoting here — “suffer from the madness of the void” and “react with constant horror to the electric world” rather than, say, enjoy milkshakes and rock and roll.
Kevin Halligan: My dad moved out when I was 10, but even when he was home, he wasn’t really HERE, you know? Sometimes he’d make half-hearted attempts at connecting, like almost naming a character after me.
It’s interesting that the Kevin in Full Court President has a dad who’s a race car driver married to an actress. I thought that was kind of neat when I was a kid. But I didn’t like how that Kevin’s hair turns white when he looks through the Obsidian Mirror midway through the movie..
Joe Eckert: I think maybe there was a part of Dwight that WANTED to write a basketball movie. But the Sparks don’t actually appear until 45 minutes into the script, and that’s after some long, long monologues from Washington about the “folly of war.”
Frank Sanchez: We fought like cats and dogs over the basketball scenes. The studio thought Washington should help the team win, but Dwight said there was no way Washington could understand the rules of the game.
His script just had the ghost possessing the opposing players and having them stand still on the court. We thought there might be some physical comedy there, but when we filmed it, it was creepy.
Kevin Halligan: My dad brought me on set on one of the days they were shooting the basketball scenes. I remembering him arguing with the director, the actors, pretty much everyone on the crew. He said at one point that he had changed his mind, and that Washington shouldn’t help the Sparks at all, that it was “unbecoming” for one of the Founding Fathers to help a team cheat at sports. My dad was really shrieking by then. It was sad.
Frank Sanchez: We had security escort him away after that.
Joe Eckert: And that’s when things fell apart. We brought in Nancy Richards — she was an ace at rewrites — but it was like Dwight’s script was poison. I’d go home at night and throw up.
Frank Sanchez: I had nightmares about the script. The things Dwight came up with…look, I was over in Korea too, and I didn’t think up scene where a ghost describes hell to a 12-year-old boy.
Sally Byrne: People still ask me about Full Court President. There’s lots of urban legends. Some things are true. The kid who played Billy did kill himself in 1986. And poor Don [Blessing, who played Sparks star player Ezekiel Green] was involved in that cult thing down in Texas. But most of the other stuff is just internet rumors.
Kevin Halligan: That was it for my dad and movies. We saw him less and less, but being away from Hollywood seemed good for him. He moved east, spent a few years as a tour guide at Mount Vernon, and married a lady who worked at his dentist’s office. He seemed a lot happier. But when Disney movies sort of hit their low point in the 70s and 80s…well, you could tell he liked that.
Dwight Halligan disappeared in 1987. Disney’s “re-envisioning” of Full Court President — starring LeBron James, Gary Oldman and one of the Stranger Things kids — is due in theaters in 2019.