Mermaid Artist Glen Keane Grew Up in a Family Circus

updated 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Each time he watches The Little Mermaid, burly Glen Keane blushes. "It's not Ariel up there," he says. "It's me." Identity crisis? Keane, 35, one of two directing animators in charge of creating the film's finned star, is quick to offer an explanation: "An animator is really an actor with a pencil." Besides, Keane's accustomed to seeing himself in the spotlight. Newspaper readers have been chuckling over his childhood exploits since 1960. That was the year he made his debut as Billy, one of the high-spirited kids tumbling through his father's cartoon strip The Family Circus, now appearing in 1,300 papers.

"Glen was the personification of Billy growing up," says Bil Keane, 67, who patterned the strip after life in his Phoenix household. "Still is. He's the All-American boy. Rambunctious, extroverted. Always the ringleader." The conspirators he rounded up were based on siblings Gayle, now 40, Neal, 38, Chris, 33, and Jeff, 31. "When I was about 7, a kid at school came up to me and said, 'You think you're so big because your dad draws The Family Circus,' " says Glen. "I had no idea what he was talking about because I thought Dad drew The Better Half. That was another cartoon that had circles in it."

It wasn't his father's fame but his sketch pad that intrigued Glen—much to Bil's delight. "He started at 5 or 6 and would think nothing of drawing World War II on a big sheet of paper," says the elder Keane. "Great action. It would just knock me out." On family trips, Glen would sit in the backseat of the car drawing away until his mother, Thel, and the rest of the family would complain that the smell from his felt-tipped pens was making them sick. And with his father's studio attached to the home, Glen could find advice whenever he needed it. "Dad was always encouraging me to draw," he says, "but my mom made sure he wouldn't push it."

Glen's first goal was not to draw cartoons. "I was going to do something more serious. I wanted to paint," he says. Then came a twist of fate worthy of a cartoon plot. In 1972, Glen and his father drove to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia to drop off his application portfolio. When they arrived, they found the school closed for spring break, so they left the portfolio with a student and asked him to deliver it to the school of art.

"A couple of months later, I got an acceptance letter from the school of film graphics," Glen recalls. "I thought, 'Well, okay, I'll be a filmmaker.' So I went there, and I found out film graphics was sort of an artistic way of saying 'cartoons.' "

Moving to Los Angeles in 1974 to work for Disney, Glen put his mark on such movie 'toons as The Rescuers and The Great Mouse Detective. "He's one of the real stars of our animation department," says studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. "The work he and Mark Henn did on the character of the mermaid is exceptional." Glen's mother agrees with the boss. "He chose the perfect career," says Thel, "because he's so animated himself. When Glen talks, he's always moving."

But it was while standing still—in line to see The Godfather, to be precise—that the younger Keane made his best choice. There he met Linda Hesselroth, who was visiting from Minneapolis. "She was wholesome and sweet and fun and cute," Glen remembers. Although Linda was engaged to someone back home, she agreed to let Glen show her around town for the remaining three days of her stay. When she got back to Minnesota, however, she wrote and asked Glen not to call or write.

Over the next three years, he received only one other letter from her, telling him she hadn't gotten married after all. Then in 1975, they renewed their correspondence, and she came to L.A. They were engaged a day after her arrival, although no one will ever accuse her of rushing into things. "It was kind of odd," Linda, a 35-year-old commercial actress, says of the romance. "But it turned out okay. It was a real fairy tale."

Glen and Linda now live in a four-bedroom Santa Clarita house, and, with two children of their own (Claire, 10, and Max, 8), they've added yet another ring to the Keane family circus.

—Cynthia Sanz, Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles

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