Bill Shirley

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Bill Shirley
Bill Shirley, Actor in a black and white portrait.jpg
Born William Jay Shirley
(1921-07-06)July 6, 1921
Indianapolis, Indiana
Died August 27, 1989(1989-08-27) (aged 68)
Los Angeles, California
Nationality American
Occupation Actor, singer, entertainer
Years active 1940–1963

William Jay "Bill" Shirley (July 6, 1921 – August 27, 1989) was an American actor and singer, later a Broadway theatre producer. He was perhaps most famous for providing both the speaking and singing voice for Prince Phillip in Walt Disney's 1959 animated masterpiece Sleeping Beauty.

Early years[edit]

Shirley was born in Indianapolis, Indiana where he attended Shortridge High School. As a very young child he was known in his town as a boy soprano and singing prodigy. He had small extra roles in a few films such as "The Phantom President" (1932) and "As The Devil Commands" (1933). He sang Christmas carols in the Columbia Pictures film "Acquitted" (1929). His father, Luther Shirley, was a funeral director for Shirley Brothers. His mother, Inez Shirley (Baldwin) was a professional pianist. In 1940, at the age of 19 he left his hometown and moved to Hollywood, California where he went on to study voice and music at the Herbert Wall School of Music. Within the year he had signed a contract with Republic Studios for small parts in 7 pictures including; Flying Tigers, Doctors Don't Tell, Rookies on Parade, Hi Neighbor, Ice-Capades Review and Sailors on Leave. In early 1942, before he had completed his contract, Shirley entered the Army, enlisting as a private, and served in recruiting. He also served with the Quartermaster Corps, the Signal Corps, and the Radio section of the Special Services branch. After the war he had a difficult time restarting his career. In 1952 he played the role of Bruce Martingale in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd and later that year got his only leading role onscreen: as Stephen Foster in I Dream of Jeanie. Throughout the 1950s he made regular radio appearances and regularly performed on stage, night clubs and television.[1]

Sleeping Beauty (1959)[edit]

Bill Shirley and Mary Costa rehearsing for Sleeping Beauty (1959)

During the film's production, Shirley along with Ed Kemmer was used by the Disney animators as a live action reference model for Prince Phillip and used both of them to perform many of the sequences from the movie live in front of them whilst they drew the animated character. He had many rehearsals with the actress and singer playing Princess Aurora (Disney), Mary Costa and the two soon became friends and later; before the film was released, performed together at the Hollywood Bowl on a Disney themed night.[2] In an interview Costa mentions that both her and the actresses playing the fairy godmothers (Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen and Barbara Luddy) were endeared to Shirley's shyness and that "we all had our crushes on him"[3] and "...he was so shy and we all had just genuine crushes on that Prince. He was really cute". In another interview she goes on to say "We loved to tease him. Verna Felton who played Flora would always creep up behind him with a pencil and act like it was a baton. She'd do some fairy work on him and say he was going to be the greatest, handsomest, and all of this".[4]

Shirley and Costa sung the now iconic song of the film; Once Upon a Dream (Sleeping Beauty song). Alongside the original, there is a version that was unused and unpublished for the film and contains rare vocals from both performers slightly different from that in the film; this can easily be found on the internet.

Additional work[edit]

Another famous vocal role of his, for which he again remained uncredited as a ghost singer, was when he provided the singing voice of the character Freddy Einsford-Hill (played by Jeremy Brett) of Warner Bros. My Fair Lady singing one of the film's most memorable songs; On the Street Where You Live. Brett had long claimed that it was he who had sung the song and that Mr. Shirley merely "sweetened the high tones".[5] It was not until 1994 that Brett admitted that it was Shirley who sung the iconic song and not him, although Brett claimed that he knew nothing about it until the opening night. [6] During the late 1940's, Bill was a vocal ghost under contract for 20th Century-Fox, dubbing vocals for films such as "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" (1949) and "Dancing In The Dark" (1949) before the studio released him for no apparent reason.


He died of lung cancer in 1989 at the Guardian Convalescent Hospital in Los Angeles at the age of 68. He was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, back home in Indianapolis.