Disney have started work on the inevitable live action adaptation of The Little Mermaid and the big casting announcement for Ariel has already hit the interwebs.
Sadly the perfect actor to play the might sea-witch Ursula – Harris Glenn Milstead – is no longer with us. And that’s not just a subjective opinion either: Disney literally based the character on him. Or more specifically, his drag queen alter ego, Divine.
Yes, friends: Disney based Ursula on a drag queen. In fact, a drag queen best known for literally eating dog poo.
Milstead was a friend of fellow Baltimore countercultural weirdo John Waters – the man who christened him Divine – and when Waters started making no-budget films in the late 60s it was a given that Divine was going to be his star.
Waters kept upping the ante on the “bad taste” quotient of his many works and in 1971 informed Divine that the starring role of Babs Johnson in his next film – Pink Flamingos – would involve eating dog poo.
And Divine did so. As he explained, “it was in the script.”
And it was a smart if disgusting move too.
Pink Flamingos became a cult hit, and Divine’s career in more mainstream cinema followed, thanks to Waters and his first (relatively) accessible films Polyester (aka “The Film From Which The Avalanches Sampled Heaps Of Lines For ‘Frontier Psychiatrist'”) and the box office hit Hairspray. And Divine’s non-drag acting career was starting to take off too: he even auditioned for Blade Runner, which would have been amazing.
Alongside that was his drag disco career, including the classic ‘You Think You’re A Man’.
So how did he become Ursula? That happened because of another queer Baltimore kid.
Howard Ashman had known Divine vaguely through the local amateur theatre scene when he was a teenager. Years later he was tapped to save Disney’s floundering animation department along with his co-writer Alan Menken after the surprise success of their musical version of Little Shop Of Horrors.
The pair were tasked with writing the songs for The Little Mermaid in 1986, but Ashman did a lot more than that: he had a hand in casting, he helped develop the storylines, and he signed off on character designs; one of which was Ursula as “a vampy overweight matron who everyone agreed looked a lot like Divine.”
And under Ashman’s direction, that was how it developed.
The film came out in 1989 and was a massive, Disney-saving hit. And this story should have a happier ending for both Divine and Ashman.
Millstead never saw himself become an indelible pop culture figure. He died in 1988 of a heart attack on the night before what could have been a career-changing guest spot on the wildly popular sitcom Married… With Children.
He was only 42, which is insane.
And Ashman, who also pitched the concept for and wrote songs for Aladdin, was two years younger that Glenn when he died in 1991 from complications due to AIDS.
However, in the iconic figure of Ursula, at least they leave one hell of a joint legacy. Rest well, gents.