UltimateDisney.com > Interviews > Lisa Davis, voice and live-action reference model for Anita in 101 Dalmatians

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UltimateDisney.com's Interview with Lisa Davis,
the voice and model for 101 Dalmatians' Anita Radcliff

By Amy Braun

As a child, Lisa Davis was discovered by Walt Disney and brought from England to America to contend for the title role of Alice in Wonderland.
Lisa Davis, the voice and reference model for Anita in "101 Dalmatians" appears alongside a dog in a current headshot.
While she didn't get the part, Walt later called on Davis to join the animated classic 101 Dalmatians as the voice and live-action reference model for Anita Radcliff, the woman who along with her dalmatian Perdita becomes part of a family which soon spawns more than a dozen puppies.

Both before and after Dalmatians, Davis performed in an assortment of live-action works for Hollywood, guest-starring in such TV shows as "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Perry Mason" and appearing in films including The Virgin Queen with Bette Davis and Joan Collins, Glory with Margaret O'Brien, The Dalton Girls, Star! alongside Julie Andrews, and the camp classic Queen of Outer Space with Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Today, 71-year-old Davis lives in Los Angeles with her husband. She currently lectures on a variety of subjects at venues around the world. With Dalmatians returning to DVD in a two-disc Platinum Edition from Disney, Davis recently took time to reflect on her most beloved film role, her memories of Walt Disney, and about man's (and woman's) best friend.

UltimateDisney.com: How did you get cast as Anita? Is it true that you originally read for the part of Cruella De Vil?

Lisa Davis: It's true, but it started long before that. When I was a young girl in England, Walt Disney actually brought me for the very first time to the studio to try out for Alice in Alice in Wonderland. When he first started to create that movie, he thought that he might have a live Alice and animate around her, and I looked a great deal like Alice, at the time -- I was 12. However, he changed his mind and sent me back to England, deciding that he would animate the entire movie instead, and I was very heartbroken. But he promised that he would remember me, and that one day he would try to use me again.

Well, many, many years passed, and I made it back to America, and I was working in the movie industry and doing a lot of pictures. I wound up in a really poor movie in the late '50s, a science fiction epic called Queen of Outer Space, which stared a Hungarian crazy woman called Zsa Zsa Gabor.
I learned how to imitate Zsa Zsa rather well and I did a really good Hungarian accent. When Walt Disney first thought about 101 Dalmatians, he was picturing Cruella, and since Zsa Zsa Gabor was very popular at that time and famous for loving fur coats and wearing fur, he thought that maybe he might give her a Zsa Zsa Gabor touch. And he knew that I could do it very well because he'd seen me do it, and he brought me into the studio to read for the role of Cruella De Vil.

Well, I was 21 years of age and still very British. And he was reading Anita across from me, and I was trying so hard to be Cruella, but I really wasn't. It definitely was not me to be a Cruella De Vil, but how could I possibly tell Walt Disney he'd made a mistake? After all, here was the great genius Walt Disney, and he'd made a mistake, he brought me in for the wrong role. But I got brave enough, and I said, "Excuse me, sir, as you read this, I can hear the role of Anita and I really am Anita, I'm not Cruella," and he said, "Would you rather try Anita?" and I said, "Please, sir, could I, could I?" He said, "Oh, yes, of course."

Lisa Davis strikes a reading on bench pose for animators' reference, as seen in this still from the 101 Dalmatians: Platinum Edition DVD's galleries. Anita's bench pose reflects her live model in this early scene from "101 Dalmatians."

So we switched, and he read Cruella De Vil and I read Anita, and it was perfect. I was Anita. And he heard me and he looked at me and he smiled at me, and he said, "Yes, you're right, you are Anita." And that's how I became Anita, thank goodness I did, because here so many years later, and it is the job of which I am most proud. It's had the longest life, and I'm so excited to be facing a reissue of it right now and seeing wonderful billboards all over California saying 101 Dalmatians. I'm so proud that I'm still a part of something so wonderful.

That is very amazing. Were you able to work with Walt much?

Yes, I was. He was very prominent at the studio during all of his movies, very much a hands-on person. I think that's the studio had so many wonderful quality products was because he was there. And he was not a demanding man at all. He was kind, compassionate, warm, he was charming. But he did ask for perfection and anybody who worked with him will say that, that he strived constantly to get everything right. I think that's the touch that we see up on the screen in all of the Disney product, is that it is such a quality product and that's why it has such a long life. I mean, every time they re-release a Disney movie, there are generations of children who haven't seen it, and as it comes again it lives today as brightly as when it was first released. Nothing happens to it; it was perfect then and it's perfect now.

Our first look at Anita and Perdita captures the attentions of narrator Pongo in "101 Dalmatians." Voice actress Lisa Davis poses with a dalmatian in this still from the 101 Dalmatians: Platinum Edition DVD's production photos gallery.

Have people ever heard you speak and recognized your voice from the movie?

Yes, they do, and sometimes I will be out and people say, "I've heard your voice before!" and all I have to say is, "It's teatime, Roger, it's teatime, darling," and they say, "Oh, it's 101 Dalmatians!" And then they bring a child over and they say, "Do you know who this lady is?" and the little child will say no, and they say, "Will you say that again?" and I say, "It's teatime, Roger," and they say, "Oh, it's Anita, it's Anita!" and I say yes. I think that's my most famous line, "It's teatime, Roger".

How was it showing the film to your children and letting them know that their mother is the voice of a Disney character?

Oh, it was endlessly wonderful. I mean, first it was my children, and now it's my grandchildren. Recently the Walt Disney studio showed the movie at the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard there, and we had a lovely big screening. I had my little 3-year-old grandchild in the audience and it was the first time she'd actually seen it on the big screen. And she just said, "That's you, Nana, that's you, Nana!" and I said, "Yes, sweetie, it is."

Just recently, the studio sent me over a very, very big stuffed Pongo, and she simply plays with it every night. she says, she speaks very well, "101 Dalmatians, Nana!" and I say, "Yes, honey." So you can't imagine what that means, there's not much that you can do in life that has the longevity of something like that. You know, in life you can look back at pictures of yourself, you can have pictures that you took, but to have something that you can put up on the screen or something that you can pop into the DVD player and see it, it's probably the greatest gift I've ever had. I'm so pleased I was able to tell Mr. Disney that he'd made a mistake (laughs).

Lisa Davis is among those interviewed for the Disc 2 documentary "Redefining The Line: The Making of 'One Hundred and One Dalmatians.'" Anita hangs ornaments in the Christmas-flavored finale of "101 Dalmatians."

What is your fondest memory of being a part of 101 Dalmatians?

I think my fondest memory is that when I was first cast, for about one month, they would bring me to the studio every day and put me into a little bungalow,
which even now still remains on the lot. And they would bring in litters of dalmatian puppies for me to play with. And I would play... I mean, what a lovely job just to sit there playing with puppies all day. That was the nicest part. We had a lot of dalmatians on the set, but these were specifically puppies. And Mr. Disney wanted me to get to know the personality of the dalmatian, and that's why they brought me in to play with puppies every day.

Are you a dog lover like Anita?

I am a dog lover, but I have never had a dalmatian. I have three dogs now and when somebody comes to the door and they bark their heads off and somebody says to me, "How many dogs do you have?", I always say a hundred and one (laughs). But I've never owned a dalmatian because I have always been told by breeders, since I have a small home and a small back garden, and they tell me that they need plenty of room to run and romp because they're very active dogs. Very sweet, clown-like personalities. After all, they ride on fire trucks, you know. When you see a fire truck, you'll always see a dalmatian beside the fire truck. I don't quite know why that is, but they seem to go hand in hand with the fire department.

What can you tell me about the recording process? Did you read all of your lines alone or did you ever record with other voice cast members?

I never worked with anybody else, other than the director, helping me, telling me how they wanted that particular line. But even though there were many scenes with other people, they just cut those in together -- we never actually recorded together.

I don't believe they do it that way now. I think they do it very quickly and with a lot of people at one time, because I see pictures. You know, the difference is, in a lot of the animated movies today, they use very, very big celebrity voices, people like Robin Williams, he does a lot of voices. They do a lot of voice work and they do it very quickly. When we did 101 Dalmatians, I was on it for four years, but now I think they probably do it in about 4 to 6 weeks. And it's not the amount of time why they didn't combine us. It was just a matter of doing one line at a time and being called in just to do one line.

With a live dalmatian on hand for inspiration, Lisa Davis poses for this promotional photo while pretending to record dialogue on what I believe is sound Stage C. Lisa Davis was originally intended to voice the character on the right, Cruella De Vil, using the Zsa Zsa Gabor impression she developed while making the camp classic "Queen of Outer Space" alongside the Hungarian icon.

What do you think it is about Cruella De Vil that has made her one of Disney's most beloved -- or most hated, depending on how you look at it -- villains?

Well, I think she is both loved and hated. I think she really is one of the greatest villains, not only of animated movies, but of all movies. She is loved because, although she's bad, she's somewhat humorous. I mean, she has a scene with me in the beginning when she comes in and wants to buy the puppies that haven't been born yet.
And I ask her if she'd like to have tea, and I offer her a cupcake, and she puts her cigarette out in the cupcake. She's horribly funny.

But definitely one of the most wicked characters on the screen. I think the brilliance of Marc Davis, who drew and animated Cruella; I don't think anybody could have done the voice like Betty Lou Gerson. I'm so pleased that it was her, and she brought so much life to Cruella, and she's so wicked (laughs). She's a bad lady! You know, she wants to skin all of those puppies, she's got 101 puppies that she's turning into fur coats - that's horrible when you think about it.

I have never in all of my life worn fur and never will and I think it's because of Cruella De Vil. (laughs) She horrifies me! And when the guys are getting ready to skin the puppies, my heart is in my mouth every time I see it, although I know that doesn't happen to them, I always worry about it -- it takes me in every time I see it.

101 Dalmatians: Platinum Edition DVD cover art
More on 101 Dalmatians: Platinum Edition:
Read our full DVD review
Read our report from Disney's special 101 Dalmatians California press junket
Read our interview with Alice Davis, costume designer and wife of animator Marc Davis
Buy the DVD from Amazon.com

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Interview with Irene Bedard, voice/model for Pocahontas

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Article published March 4, 2008.