Nearly 4,000 mourners, including many of Hollywood’s most powerful and influential players, jammed the Walt Disney Co.’s Stage 2 Monday afternoon to pay their final respects to the company’s president, Frank G. Wells, who died April 3 in a helicopter crash in the Ruby Mountains in northeast Nevada.
The two-hour-plus event was highlighted by remembrances from many of Well’s co-workers and friends, including company chairman Michael Eisner, who hosted the event, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, MPAA president Jack Valenti and Warner Bros. co-chairman Robert Daly. In addition, actress Candice Bergen read Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.” Disney studios and its offices in Glendale were closed Monday in Wells’ memory.
In addition to the numerous Disney executives and members of Wells’ family on hand, including his wife Luanne, his sonsKevin and Briant, and his mother, Betty , the sound stage was filled with many who had worked with Wells. Among the Warner Bros. execs in attendance were Terry Semel, Bruce Berman, Sanford Reisenbach, Joe Hyams, Robert G. Friedman, Barry Reardon and Joel Wayne.
Other mourners included Jonathan Dolgen, Mike Marcus, Mark Canton, Jon Peters , David Geffen, Joe Roth, James Garner, ICM’s Jim Wiatt, CAA’s Ron Meyer, Steve Tisch, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Gregory Peck and Quincy Jones.
After an invocation by the Rev. M. Gregory Richards, an emotionally moved Eisner took the stage. Fighting tears, he told the assembled group: “There are some griefs that have to be shared. And while we all share the joy of having known Frank, that is why we are here today — to pay tribute.”
In describing Wells, Eisner said: “He was not a suit. He was the opposite. He was an adventurer, a corporate adventurer. He was a sounding board who was able to take the risk.”
Eisner, noting that there were people present from across the globe, said: “I am pleased that there are so many people from all over. Frank would have been embarrassed.” The company chairman also noted that he and Wells never had misunderstandings or disagreements, but added, “That was until last Sunday, because I wanted him with me to handle this difficult period.”
Before turning the podium over to other speakers, Eisner announced that the company was establishing the Frank G. Wells Award, which will be given as part of Disney’s awards to teachers, to a non-educator who exemplifies the best in teachers.
MPAA president Jack Valenti recalled how he tried to convince Wells over the years to enter politics. “He had the seedbed of character that is a requisite for a political career,” Valenti said. “The country that he loved is the loser.”
Eastwood, who spent long hours with Wells both professionally and on the ski slopes, recalled that when he met Wells more than 30 years ago, “He was interested in everything and he was fiercely competitive.” After telling a story where he and Wells settled a contract negotiation with a tennis match, the star simply stated, “I’ll miss you, pal.”
Redford said he admired Wells for leaving Warner Bros. in 1981 to take on a different challenge — mountain climbing.
“He rose to the heights of a profession,” Redford said. “Then he did something that few people would do. He stopped. He wanted to tend to his soul.” Remarking on Wells’ devotion to the environment, Redford said: “The least we can do is pledge a continuing support to preserve the environment. I hope Frank’s spirit is very much with us.”
Studio topper Jeffrey Katzenberg assembled a video montage of highlights from Wells’ career, which served to underscore Wells’ far-reaching influence in the industry and the impact that the executive had on rebuilding the Disney empire.
The last speaker was Wells’ son, Briant, who thanked the assembled group for attending the event and read a letter he received from his father on his 18th birthday. The program closed with a benediction by the Rev. Cecil Murray from L.A.’s First AME church and that church’s choir, including soloist Carmen Twilly , belting out a rendition of “The Circle of Life,” from the studio’s upcoming “The Lion King.”