Saturday, December 19, 2009

Roy Edward Disney dies at 79; nephew of Walt helped revive animation

  • In the 1980s after establishing financial independence, he paved the way for a new management team that brought back to life the art form that defined Walt Disney Co.

Roy E. Disney

Roy Edward Disney, seen in his Burbank office in 1985, was the billionaire nephew of entertainment icon Walt Disney. Roy E. Disney so closely resembled his uncle's physical appearance that when he made outings to Disney theme parks or was out promoting the company's animated films, people in public would ask him if he was Walt Disney's brother. (Los Angeles Times)

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Roy Edward Disney, the nephew of Walt Disney whose commitment to his uncle's creative spirit prompted him to mount revolts that led to the unseating of two of the company's chief executives and a revival of the studio's legendary animation unit, died Wednesday. He was 79.

Disney, who had been battling stomach cancer, died at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, according to Clifford A. Miller, a spokesman for Disney's company Shamrock Holdings.

Disney toiled for years in the shadow of his famous uncle and his father, Disney Studios co-founder Roy O. Disney, who ran the business side of the company for his brother. But the quiet scion would emerge as a forceful protector of Disney traditions when he believed that the company that bore the family name was headed in the wrong direction.

"People always underestimated Roy," Peter Schneider, the former president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, said recently. "You underestimate Roy at your peril, as many people have learned."

As chairman of Disney animation, Disney helped guide the studio to a new golden age of animation with an unprecedented string of artistic and box-office successes that included "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King." He was executive producer of "Fantasia/2000," the sequel to the 1940 Disney classic, and the 2004 Oscar-nominated "Destino," based on a 1945 collaboration between Walt Disney and Spanish painter Salvador Dali.

"I really credit Roy Disney completely with the renaissance of Disney animation, beginning with 'Little Mermaid' and all the way through that great amazing series of classic Disney films," said John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.

Nature filmmaker

Disney devoted the first 20 years of his career to working on nature films, including the Academy Award-winning True-Life Adventure features "The Living Desert" and "The Vanishing Prairie." His 1959 short subject "Mysteries of the Deep" received an Oscar nomination. After the death of Walt in 1966 and Roy's father in 1971, the younger Disney was spurned in his efforts to take a larger role with the company. He finally quit in 1977, but remained on its board as a director, where he was largely a figurehead.

Adrift, Disney hooked up with lawyer Stanley Gold and became a successful financier, investing in a variety of businesses that included broadcasting, soybeans and Israeli industrial concerns through Shamrock Holdings, a company named for one of Disney's racing sloops. He served as chairman of the company, which has approximately $2 billion under management.

During the 1980s, Gold, Disney and Shamrock became one of the better-known corporate raiders, making unsuccessful hostile takeover bids for companies such as Polaroid Corp. and the Wherehouse Entertainment chain of music stores. Its takeover of Central Soya, a soybean processor in Fort Wayne, Ind., would yield a sizable $170-million profit for Shamrock and its partners with its subsequent sale to an Italian agricultural concern. Through investments, Gold sought to free Disney of his financial dependence on the Disney company stock he inherited. Most were successful, although Shamrock stumbled on some, particularly a money-losing investment in sneaker maker L.A. Gear.

By 1984, Disney had grown increasingly frustrated with the Walt Disney Co., which he likened to a real estate company that happened to be in the movie business. The company had let its feature animation film business, once the cornerstone of the company, deteriorate. The company, Disney would later say, had lost its creative drive.

"I said to him, 'Roy, I think you've reached a point where you need to get all the way in or all the way out,' " Gold said. "He said, 'What does that mean?' I said, 'You either need to sell your shares in Disney and go independent, or you need to put up a fight and get rid of the managers and find real managers for this business.' "

With his financial independence established from his investments, Disney pondered with Gold and a handful of other advisors what, if anything, they could do. Finally, a decision was made to try to unseat the company's management, made awkward by the fact that Walt's son-in-law, Ron Miller, was chief executive. Disney abruptly quit the company board in 1984, sending a signal to investors and Wall Street that something was amiss. The turmoil Disney ignited eventually swept the old management group from the corporate suites.

In the end, Disney, with an alliance formed with the billionaire Bass family of Texas, returned to the board and forced out the studio management, paving the way for the hiring of a new team led by Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Upon taking over as chief executive, Eisner asked Disney what he wanted to do. Disney responded that he wanted to revive the company's sagging animation division, where morale was rock-bottom as the company was releasing one of its worst-reviewed films, "The Black Cauldron." Eisner granted Disney his wish.

Disney persuaded the new regime to invest about $10 million in a digital ink and paint system developed by Pixar, a seemingly minor decision that proved to be a turning point in the company's fortunes. It would lay the foundation of Disney's relationship with the firm that pioneered computer-generated animation. Within a few years, Disney turned out a remarkable string of animated hits. The films won critical acclaim and proved wildly lucrative as well, with money pouring into the company not only from the box office, but from the sales of T-shirts, toys and home videos.

"He was happy to sit in a room with a beer and a hot dog and talk about story ideas with us. He was that kind of guy," said longtime Disney animation producer Don Hahn, who directed the new documentary "Waking Sleeping Beauty." "He would walk through the halls, unannounced, and drop by and say hello. That kind of involvement was not only empowering but encouraging to us. . . . That gave us tremendous confidence, when we were making movies like 'The Black Cauldron,' that we could reinvent ourselves."

Disney's pet project, a new version of "Fantasia," was released in 2000, initially in big-screen IMAX form. Like the original, "Fantasia/2000" blended animation inspired largely by classical music. Included were segments set to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Ottorino Respighi's "Pines of Rome." Disney also included "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the cornerstone of Walt Disney's original, in the new version.

At the same time, relations between Disney and Eisner had grown increasingly strained, with the two men communicating mostly by phone and through e-mail. Tensions had been building since the 1994 death of the company's president and chief operating officer, Frank Wells, which left Eisner solely in control of the company. Disney complained to confidants that he was being marginalized by the man he had helped install as chief executive.

By November 2003, Disney learned that the board's four-member nominating committee was planning to leave his name off the slate of directors scheduled to be elected at the company's next annual meeting. The longtime animation chief discovered he had been shut out of a Thanksgiving week screening of ideas for new animated films. The company had been in a prolonged financial slump, with its earnings flat and its stock performance anemic, but the snub was the last straw. Disney and Gold, his business partner, abruptly quit the board of directors in December 2003 and called for Eisner's resignation. [continued...]

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