Roy E. Disney will likely be remembered principally for the role he played behind the scenes in the Disney boardroom, engineering two coups and helping revitalize the animated film division.
The nephew of Walt Disney died Wednesday in Newport Beach, Calif., after a bout with stomach cancer. He was 79.
His father, Roy O. Disney, and uncle, Walt, co-founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio before renaming it The Walt Disney Co. in the 1920s. Walt was the company’s creative genius but Roy Disney’s father played a vital role heading up the financial side of the studio.
Despite his heritage, Roy Disney never got the chance to lead the company as his father and uncle had. But as an investor who grew his Disney stock into a billion-dollar fortune, and formed Shamrock Holdings with his friend and fellow Disney board member Stanley Gold in 1978, he ultimately had a huge impact on the company’s destiny.
Although he generally stayed out of the spotlight, Disney didn’t hesitate to lead a successful campaign in 1984 to oust Ron Miller, Walt Disney’s son-in-law, after concluding he was leading the company in the wrong direction.
At the time, Disney resigned from the company’s board of directors and sought investors to back a bid to install new management. (Miller was the husband of Diane Disney Miller, Roy’s cousin).
His efforts resulted in the hiring of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, who led the company as a team until Wells died in 1994.
Disney wound up rejoining the board and rose to become the company’s vice chairman and chairman of its animation division, whose comeback he helped oversee, starting with “The Little Mermaid” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “The Lion King.” His goal to update “Fantasia” with the ambitious “Fantasia 2000” sequel was no more successful than the original, a box office disappointment.
After years of dissatisfaction with Eisner’s leadership and the company’s lagging stock price, Disney and Gold resigned their board seats in 2003 and launched a highly publicized “Save Disney” shareholder revolt.
In his resignation letter, Disney called for Eisner’s ouster, complaining that on his watch, the company’s standards had declined, particularly at its theme parks, and citing the executive’s prickly relationship with Pixar Animation Studios’ Steve Jobs.
The Walt Disney Co. deserves fresh, energetic leadership at this challenging time in its history, just as it did in 1984, when I headed a restructuring which resulted in your recruitment to the company,” Disney wrote to Eisner.
Initially rebuffed, Disney rallied small investors and enthusiasts who responded to his folksy complaints about peeling paint at the theme parks and his anger at being told he would have to leave the board because he was too old.
One of the reasons for my leaving, other than the fact that they fired me, was that I saw that quality slipping away from us,” Disney told a 2004 meeting of memorabilia collectors.
Slowly, Disney built support for his cause, and at the company’s annual shareholders meeting in 2004 he received a standing ovation.
Shareholders eventually delivered an unprecedented rebuke to Eisner, withholding 45% of votes cast for his re-election to the board. The chief executive was later stripped of his role as board chairman and announced his retirement in 2005, a year before his contract was up.
Disney initially opposed Eisner’s successor, Robert Iger, but they reconciled and, in 2005, Iger named Disney a board member emeritus and welcomed him back to company events.
On behalf of everyone at Disney, we are saddened by the loss of our friend and colleague,” said Iger, president and CEO of the Walt Disney Co., in a statement. “He was much more than a valued 56-year company veteran — Roy’s true passion and focus were preserving and building upon the amazing legacy of Disney animation that was started by his father and uncle. Roy’s commitment to the art of animation was unparalleled and will always remain his personal legacy and one of his greatest contributions to Disney’s past, present and future.”
Gold said, “Roy and I enjoyed a 35-year friendship and partnership that was simply special. We faced many business challenges together, had fun in the process and enjoyed a wide variety of professional successes.”
John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Disney and Pixar, said, “I first met Roy when I was still an animation student at CalArts. Not only did I consider him a personal friend, but he was a great man who believed deeply in the art of animation. He put his heart and soul into preserving Disney’s legendary past, while helping to move the art of animation into the modern age by embracing new technology. Roy was a visionary and passionate supporter of the art form, and he was all about quality. I was always impressed that he would make time for someone like me when I was fresh out of college, and he continued to support and encourage me throughout my career.”
Jeffrey Katzenberg added, “Everyone who works in the entertainment industry must be deeply saddened by the passing of Roy E. Disney. His passion for the art form of animation was infectious and inspiring. My condolences go out to his entire family.”
Disney, born on Jan. 10, 1930, was Roy and Edna Disney’s only child.
He started out working as an editor, screenwriter and producer during the 1950s. After graduating from Pomona College in 1951, he briefly worked at NBC as an assistant editor on the “Dragnet” TV series.
He worked on two short films that were nominated for Academy Awards: the 1959 “Mysteries of the Deep,” which he wrote, was nominated in the live action short category, and the 2003 film “Destino,” which he co-produced, was nominated for animated short. After joining Disney, he worked on a series of live-action short features, including “The Living Desert” and “The Vanishing Prairie.”
As an adult, Roy often wore a moustache, which gave him a striking resemblance to his legendary uncle.
In his spare time he bought a castle in Ireland and indulged his passion for yacht racing, setting several speed records. For years he was a fixture at the Transpacific Yacht Race between California and Hawaii.
He and his wife Leslie produced the sailing documentaries “TransPac — A Century Across the Pacific” and “Morning Light,” which follows the selection and training of 18- to 23-year-old sailors on the 2007 Transpacific Yacht Race.
In 1999, he matched a gift from the Walt Disney Co. to establish Redcat, the Roy and Edna Disney-CalArts Theater, an experimental theater space that is part of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. He also sponsored the Roy E. Disney Center for the Performing Arts at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, N.M. In 2005, he pledged $10 million to establish the Roy and Patricia Disney Cancer Center at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank that opens next spring.
He was previously married to Patty Daily for 52 years.
He is survived by his second wife, Leslie DeMeuse Disney, a TV producer; daughters Abigail E. Disney and Susan Disney Lord; sons Roy P. and Timothy J. Disney; and 16 grandchildren.