Ludwig Von Drake is Donald Duck’s eccentric uncle from the European side of the family. Great care was made not to identify him as German despite his distinctive accent (because there were still hard feelings about World War II that had taken place just over a decade earlier) but rather as Austrian from Vienna.
In fact, comedian Sid Caesar’s famous, kooky “German” professor character on his 1950s television shows who was interviewed by Carl Reiner was also identified as being Austrian if you listen closely to his introductions.
He was given different names in the comedy sketches including Ludwig von Spacebrain, Ludwig von Fossil and Ludwig von Henpecked but was generally just referred to as just “the Professor”. He was an expert on everything from fishing to mountain climbing to sleeping to space travel and self defense.
Of course, the flamboyance of German scientists Wernher von Braun and the encyclopedic knowledge of Heinz Haber who had both served as technical consultants on the space programs for the weekly Disney television show were also inspirations for the character.
Veteran performer Paul Frees was also a major influence and provided the voice for the character. He was given wide latitude to ad-lib and improvise dialog that was later included in the final film to help create a high energy and the same sense of spontaneous “kooky” non-stop mumbly chatter as the Sid Caesar character.
After many years doing radio and television work as well as being known for his expertise in mimicry, Frees had a comic German accent as part of his extensive repertoire which he utilized.
After Frees retired from the role, the character was briefly voiced by Walker Edmiston. As writer Mark Evanier remembered, “being an ethical person, he only agreed to take it on after talking to Paul and getting his blessing”. Since 1987, the character has been voiced by Corey Burton.
As an expert on everything, he was to explain the superiority of RCA’s color television sets. RCA was the parent company of NBC and was in competition with other color systems at the time so they wanted something to make them stand out.
To help promote both the launch of the new weekly Disney television series and sales of RCA’s color television, viewers were invited to go to a local RCA TV dealership to experience the new television sets and “living color”.
As a promotional gift, people received a unique Disneykins set packaged in a red cardboard box with a cellophane TV screen–shaped window, showing five Disneykins and the lettering “Courtesy of your RCA Victor dealer”.
The four by three inch box box featured Professor Ludwig Von Drake in the center, surrounded by Disneykins figures of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto. Inside, on the yellow cardboard insert was a graphic of Nipper, the famous RCA Victor dog, as well as the RCA logo and the tagline: “RCA: The most trusted name in electronics.
On September 30th, 2017, I got a chance to talk with Disney Legend Floyd Norman about many things, including working on the character of Ludwig Von Drake.
“I don’t remember the exact date, but it was not long after the completion of the Walt Disney feature film, 101 Dalmatians (1961). Story master, Bill Peet had a good deal of work completed on the upcoming feature, The Sword in the Stone (1963), but we were not quite ready to begin animation. Conveniently, a good deal of television work needed to be done and that would tide us over until the feature was ready to begin production.
“After a long and successful run on ABC, Walt Disney decided to move his weekly television show to a new network. Color television was the hottest new thing and it appeared that NBC and its parent company, RCA was about to take the lead in this new technology. Clearly, the network needed a big new show to introduce color to the viewing public and Walt Disney was the obvious choice.
“The Old Maestro would re-brand his show as Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Before long, we had a script up on the boards in the upstairs story room where in black and white, Walt Disney would introduce the new show and the importance of color in his theatrical films. A tour of the Ink and Paint department would lead to a transition to full color.
“Walt Disney would then introduce us to a new expert on color. After all, who better to explain the intricacies of color than ‘the renown expert on practically everything’, Professor Ludwig Von Drake.
“Story man, Bill Berg first created the wacky professor while developing the storyline for the television show. Berg’s rough, cartoony sketches would be handed down to the master character designer and animator, Milt Kahl who would lead the animation on the zany professor.
“Von Drake would be given a voice by the celebrated voice actor, Paul Frees. Frees was a Disney veteran who had done voices for darn near everything Disney including films and theme park attractions. I spent a lot of time talking with him in the hall which was great fun and he was certainly not immodest about his many accomplishments.
“In many ways, it was my first introduction to Milt Kahl, the directing animator I would assist on the next Disney feature film, The Sword in the Stone (1963). This television job was the perfect way to ease in to my time with the obstreperous, master animator. Working with Milt Kahl was a delight and sketching Professor Von Drake was one of the most fun jobs I’ve had at Disney Animation.
“Professor Ludwig Von Drake was initially considered a ‘one shot’ but the zany character proved to be so popular he was brought back again and again as show host and resident expert on practically everything. I continued to work on the wacky character over time including a brief stint as Ward Kimball’s assistant on the character.
“When Walt Disney removed Ward Kimball from directing the live action feature Babes in Toyland, Ward was sent to work on Ludwig Von Drake as punishment. Ward had been a producer and director and now he was demoted back into animation.
“He had lost none of his skill with a pencil and in fact, would do a day’s work of animation in half a day and spend the rest of the time taking a nap. I guess that was his way of showing his defiance. I think he liked doing the character but didn’t like being ‘dressed down’ especially over something he felt was a misunderstanding that he had nothing to do with.”
Read more of Floyd’s wonderful true-life adventures on his blog, Mr. Fun’s Journal.
And don’t miss the fantastic documentary about Floyd Norman – Floyd: An Animated Life.