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'Walt Disney' Profile Must-See TV

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It’s fitting that PBS’ Walt Disney documentary arrives days after the new wave of “Star Wars” merchandise.

Walt Disney pioneered entertainment marketing deals with his new Mickey Mouse character in the late 1920s… Which led to the creation of his powerful Walt Disney entertainment conglomerate decades later…. Which enabled the company to buy Lucasfilm and “Star Wars” three years ago.

“American Experience: Walt Disney,” 9-11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on PBS (Channels 48, 54, 16), provides a fascinating, comprehensive look at the fun-loving creative genius who gave us Mickey Mouse, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Mary Poppins and Disneyland… And the vindictive, driven boss who fought unionization at his studio and  claimed union leaders were Communists  before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee; ignored advice from NAACP leaders before depicting slavery in “Song of the South” (then bristled at their picketing theaters);  and couldn’t interrupt his South American vacation to attend his father’s funeral.

The four-hour film also shows that how Disney’s dreams repeatedly were in financial chaos from his early years with “Alice” and “Oswald” cartoons in the 1920s, through losses on “Fantasia” and “Bambi” in the 1940s.

He didn’t achieve economic independence until 1954, when ABC paid nearly $5 million (after CBS and NBC passed) for a weekly “Walt Disney” TV series. That provided the down payment for the $17-million Disneyland theme park where fans could walk through Disney’s popular animated settings and scenes.

“American Experience” portrays Disney as the triumph of the underdog, the theme at the heart of most Disney animated features, live-action movies and cartoon shorts. He “becomes the master of dreams and hopes,” says one historian in the film. It’s a fascinating warts and all profile of the visionary who created so many elements of popular culture.

It’s television at its best, explaining who, how and why we are today.  And a terrific way to start the Fall TV season.

DVR Alert: If you’re setting the DVR for the “American Experience: Walt Disney” conclusion on Tuesday, also record “In Their Own Words: Jim Henson” at 8 p.m. on Channels 48, 54 and 16).