Naples, Fla. – One of O.J. Simpson’s last films was one of Arthur L. Bernstein’s first.
Bernstein — producer, writer and executive producer of the new movie “Walt Before Mickey” — said he met the former NFL great more than a decade ago at a basketball game.
“He was very friendly and nice,” Bernstein said of Simpson, acquitted in the 1994 slayings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, but now serving time in a Nevada prison on various felonies.
Bernstein said he asked Simpson to participate in the movie, and the Pro Football Hall of Famer complied. In the 2004 short film, Simpson punches Bernstein’s character because he was getting too friendly with Simpson’s girlfriend.
“And he did it for free,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein, 37, said he expects more theaters nationwide to show the PG-rated “Walt Before Mickey” that co-stars North Naples native Demitri Vardoulias as a young Walt Disney.
The film premieres Friday in Southwest Florida at Silverspot cinema at the Mercato in North Naples.
Both Florida natives, Bernstein and Armando Gutierrez — who holds the same titles as Bernstein for the movie — recently answered Daily News questions in a telephone interview.
NDN: How long did it take you to put together a movie like this, from idea to screen?
Bernstein: “Between 2 ½ to three years. Armando and I were sitting down and said, ‘Let’s make a movie.” The original title was called ‘The Dreamer.’ Then we got the rights on the book.” (NOTE: The 2011 book has the same title as the movie and was written by Timothy S. Susanin.)
Gutierrez: “Everyone who jumped on the movie to help out is a Walt Disney fan. It was a project people we’re proud to be a part of. It just took off.
“There’s such a limited amount of movies being made (in Florida). A lot of people opened up their offices and locations to us.”
Filming sites in the Sunshine State included DeLand, near Orlando, for farm scenes featuring Vardoulias’ young Walt character.
NDN: Was it intimidating to tackle a film about an American icon, Walt Disney?
Bernstein: “It was a little intimidating. We didn’t want to be the guys who screwed up Disney. We know everyone will have us under the microscope.
“We want to show the early life of Walt Disney, how he came to be, the man he is. He’s just a hard worker and he overcome a lot of challenges and a lot of adversity. He got married, ran out of money, got hungry. He also got ripped off, not once, twice, but three times.
“Disney was the first to give women jobs from that industry, the first to do live-action animation. We show he went bankrupt, we show how he lost his job, how he had different companies, how he had different ambitions. He ran a business like everyone else. He kept increasing his risks.”
Gutierrez: “We definitely show him through the ups and downs. To be that successful, you’re definitely going to have a lot of stumbles. And he had a lot of stumbles. He eventually realized he had to do it his way. One line he said was ‘I’ll never work for anyone else as long as I live.’ And he never did. Once he had Mickey Mouse to support his risk, it really let him realize his dreams.”
NDN: As executive producer, how involved were you with the movie’s finances?
Bernstein: “I’m involved with everything. It’s me and my partner, Armando, who run it all. I raised majority of the funding. I wrote a lot of the script. We oversee what goes on, from the directing to the talent, from every scene we had to cut down because of budget concerns.”