Hollywood remembered Disney topper Frank G. Wells Monday as a tough exec who ran a tight financial ship, as well as the robust climber of seven of the world’s highest mountain peaks.
Wells, prexy and COO for the mouse corp, died Sunday in a helicopter crash in the Ruby Mountains in northeast Nevada.
Typical of his adventurous spirit, the 62-year-old had spent the weekend heli-skiing in the rugged mountain range with actor Clint Eastwood, who left an hour before the crash.
Eastwood would not comment on his friend’s death, but his agent Leonard Hirshan, also a close Wells companion, called the loss “immeasurable.”
“This is a very heavy day. I’ve been sighing all day,” Hirshan said. “He was a very intelligent, bright, future-thinking person who greatly contributed to whatever undertaking he pursued, whether at Warner Bros. or at Disney or when he was representing Clint Eastwood as a lawyer.”
Wells’ career in Hollywood spanned more than 30 years, starting with the law firm Gang, Tyre & Brown, where as a young entertainment attorney his clients included Eastwood and James Garner.
Joining Warner Bros. in 1969, Wells moved quickly up the corporate ladder, serving as prexy and ultimately vice chairman at the studio. He moved to Disney in 1984 alongside chairman Michael Eisner.
Though he officially reported to Eisner at Disney, Wells was long considered a behind-the-scenes equal to the chief. On joining the company, the pair worked closely together to revitalize the company’s motion pic, TV and theme park operations.
Under their direction, Disney’s annual revenues rose from $ 1.5 billion to $ 8.5 billion. The company’s stock value increased 1,500% as Theme Parks and Resorts revenues tripled, Consumer Products revenues increased 13-fold and Filmed Entertainment revenues jumped 15-fold.
The studio also became one of Hollywood’s leading film producers. From 1988- 91 it twice led the industry in domestic B.O. receipts and was near the top the other two years.
Wells also oversaw the voluminous growth of the company’s cable TV biz and its resurrection as the world leader in children’s animated features with such B.O. successes as “The Little Mermaid,””Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.”
While Hollywood mourned, some industryites recalled Wells as a formidable negotiator who usually got what he wanted.
“He was very tough,” says Eric Weissmann, a lawyer who started out with Wells some 30 years ago. “He was a very tough dealmaker, but always smart, urbane and courtly.”
When Wells became prexy of Warners in 1973, he hired Weissmann as veep of biz affairs.
Weissmann recalled a run-in Wells had with “Billy Jack” star Tom Laughlin over how the film would be distributed. After a particularly heated discussion, the actor gave Wells a pair of boxing gloves as a gift.
Wells also reportedly chastised William Friedkin for running over budget with “The Exorcist.” The exec called a meeting to discuss firing the helmer, but finally backed down, threatening to “call another meeting” if Friedkin went over budget again.
According to Hirshan, an agent at William Morris, Wells could be equally gracious and laugh over his mistakes.
In 1974, when “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” drew boffo box office receipts after being turned down by Wells while at Warner, he called Hirshan into his office.
“When the picture came out and was successful,” Hirshan said, “Frank sat me down in his office and said, ‘Whenever you come to me with a Clint Eastwood project, don’t ever let me see you walk out of this office without my closing a deal.’ ”
John Calley, prexy of United Artists Pictures, called Wells “as honorable a man as ever I’ve met.”
“The loss of somebody like Frank to any company and more important to an industry is devastating,” Calley said. “He was plausible, responsible. His credibility was of the highest possible order.”
Roy E. Disney, vice chairman of the board at the studio and Walt Disney’s nephew, was pals with Wells at Pomona College.
Even then, Disney says, Wells was a wild man, once landing a tiny Cessna plane on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro minutes before it ran out of gas.
Disney said that incident propelled Wells into his period of serious mountain climbing. In 1981, taking a leave from WB, he decided he would climb the highest mountains on each of the earth’s seven continents.
Wells succeeded on six of the peaks, bowing only to the howling winds and steep grades near the top of Mt. Everest. He recounted his experience in a 1986 book, “Seven Summits.”
Bruce Ramer, high-powered attorney for Steven Spielberg, worked with Wells in their early days at Gang, Tyre & Brown. He said the Disney exec was always competitive. “We did play tennis quite a bit together,” Ramer said. “I can tell you this, Frank’s competitive nature was more than amply demonstrated on the tennis court. He once missed a plane because we hadn’t finished a game in time.”
One industry source remembered Wells as a man who even competed to take the check. While he paid for all his business dinners, he never wanted the check delivered to the restaurant table. Wells reportedly wrote checks for thousands of dollars to numerous eateries around town to avoid the embarrassment of deciding who would pick up the check.
Born March 4, 1932 in Coronado, Wells was the son of a career naval officer. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Pomona College, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, then went on as a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford University.
After earning a law degree atStanford U., he spent two years in the U.S. Army , attaining the rank of first lieutenant.
Besides his studio day job, Wells served on the board of trustees at Pomona College, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the California Institute of Technology. He was a director of the American Himalayan Foundation.
Wells is survived by his wife Luanne, his sons Kevin and Briant, and his mother, Betty.
Funeral plans had not been announced.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that all donations be made to Environment Now, a foundation established by Wells and his wife dedicated to protecting the environment. All contributions should be sent to: Environment Now , 450 Newport Center Drive, Suite 450, Newport Beach, 92660.