It is almost impossible to discuss Richard Williams without discussing The Thief and the Cobbler (or, The Thief). It is a project that consumed much of his career and for which there still remains mystery, intrigue, and cautionary tales. The Thief had its origins in the mid-1960s, when Richard Williams became interested in Sufism. Sufism is a concept related to an inner ‘mystical’ aspect of Islam – although some Sufi scholars teach that the concept pre-dates religions and only flowered under Islam.
Omar Ali Shah was the first business manager that Richard Williams Animation (RWA) had in its twenty-year lease at 13 Soho Square. Omar Ali Shah was a prominent exponent of Naqshbandi Sufism, an order that traces its connection to Muhammad through Abu Bakr, the first Caliph and a companion of Muhammad. Most Sufi orders trace their lineage through Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and the fourth Caliph. Omar Ali Shah’s brother, Indries Shah, was a major Sufi, scholar/master. The brothers traced their family back to 122 BC – through the prophet Muhammad and to the Sassanian emperors of Persia. Indries Shah had written a seminal work on Sufism, ‘The Sufis,’ and was collecting folk tales about the Mulla Nasrudin.
Williams was co-writer and director on a 1965 short film called, The Dermis Probe, based on writings of Indries Shah. In 1966, Williams collaborated with Indries Shah by providing illustrations for a series of humourous books on Nasrudin. The illustrations became the model for the styling of what became The Thief.
The idea for an animated feature film was Indries Shah’s, but it became Williams’ obsession. There was a reference to the project as early as the 1968 International Film Guide, which noted that Williams was about to begin work on “the first of several films based on stories featuring Mull Nasrudin.” The 1969 International Film Guide noted that animator Ken Harris was now working on the project. At that time, it was being called, The Amazing Nasruddin. By 1970 it was being called, The Majestic Fool, but it was soon being referred to as, Nasruddin!.
In the early 1970s there was a falling out between Williams and Ali-Shah. Williams claimed that Ali-Shah had been stealing from the studio. The relationship came apart during the production of the Christmas special, A Christmas Carol (1971). Williams had done a lot of work on the Nasrudin project. Indries Shah was demanding 50% of the profits from the film, and the situation was further complicated by Indries Shah’s sister claiming ownership of the Nasrudin stories because of having done some translation. Indries Shah eventually gave Williams the rights to The Thief character, but kept control of the Nasrudin character. A 1973 RWA promotional booklet explained the disappearance of the Nasrudin character as being due to it being “too verbal.”
The focus of Williams’ film switched to The Thief, and Tack, the cobbler, was introduced. The character of Zig-Zag is said to be based on Indries Shah. The project has had many names over the years… The Thief Who Never Gave Up, Once, and The Thief and the Cobbler. After Williams lost control of the project, it was called The Princess and the Cobbler and then, Arabian Night. A compilation, restoration, and reconstruction of ‘parts’ was done by Garrett Gilchrist to present a version of Williams’ intended production. That reconstruction is called, The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut.
The Thief and the Cobbler was an active project at RWA from 1972 until 1992, when control of the film was wrested away from Williams. Several BBC documentaries covered portions of this time. The 2012 documentary film, Persistence of Vision, covered the production of The Thief and the Cobbler, calling it “the greatest film never made.” For many years Williams would not discuss The Thief publicly and he became a bit of a recluse. In 2008, Williams attended the Ottawa International Film Festival, where he was honoured for lifetime achievement. It was the 20th anniversary of Who framed Roger Rabbit, but The Thief formed part of the discussion Williams had on stage with John Canemaker. Williams made himself available for honours at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2013 as part of the 25th anniversary of Who framed Roger Rabbit. In December 2013, Williams was convinced to be present and to introduce a screening of the newly-restored director’s cut of The Thief at the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts, and Sciences (AMPAS) in Los Angeles. The program was called, ‘The Thief and the Cobbler – A Moment in Time.’