Oprah Winfrey sat down with Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger to discuss his book, “The Ride of a Lifetime,” on OWN’s “Super Soul Sunday,” airing this Sunday at 12 p.m. ET/PT. During that time, they discuss mentor Roone Arledge, Iger’s father, the Pulse nightclub shooting and the moment when Steve Jobs revealed his cancer diagnosis to Iger.
Here are a few highlights from Winfrey and Iger’s conversation about his more-than-four-decade-long career in entertainment:
For one thing, Iger thought he was going to publish his book in tandem with his retirement. Not so.
“I thought the timing would work,” he said. “Little did I know that the timing didn’t really work because I’m still at work. I thought this would be a perfect time to create a retrospective of my own of this incredibly wonderful personal experience.”
Iger, who has been CEO since 2005 and pushed back his retirement date several times, is now slated to step down from the top post at Disney at the end of 2021.
Leading With Optimism
Iger recalled an early interaction with Arledge, “the big boss” at ABC News at the time, at one point standing side by side at adjacent urinals in the men’s room. Arledge asked Iger how his day was going.
“Some days I have a tough time keeping my head above water,” Iger told him. “I remember [Arledge] replying so quickly and in such a penetrating way: ‘Get a longer snorkel.'”
“Like, ‘Hey kid, you think it’s tough for you?'” laughed Iger at the memory. “In a way I took his response as a put-down. I think I felt kind of small at the time. Let’s put it this way: I never said the same thing to anybody else when they asked me how my day was.”
The interaction was part of a greater lesson for Iger: that nobody wants to be led by a pessimist.
Iger also learned from Arledge that it was necessary to “innovate or die.”
“Roone was a big risk taker, and he believed if you just played it safe, you never did anything great,” Iger told Winfrey. “And he also was quite aware, back in the ’70s, when I started working with him, that the world was changing fast, and because nothing was going to stay the same, you couldn’t stay the same.”
Winfrey also brought up Iger’s pursuit of “relentless perfection.” The Disney chief recalled Jiro, a renowned sushi chef in Tokyo. The chef, profiled in the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” made an impression on Iger for his continual drive to achieve perfection. Arledge had the same impact on Iger.
“Often people settle for something that they may feel is good, when with more work, more time, more resources just — a longer snorkel — you can make it great,” Iger said. “So why aren’t we in the business of always trying to make something great?”
Lessons From His Father
Iger, who first wanted to be an anchorman like Walter Cronkite and would go on to head ABC’s sports and entertainment units, said his father struggled with manic depression. He recalls in the book that as a student, academics were never his passion in high school, and that something clicked for him in college.
“I was determined to work hard, learn as much as I could learn, and I think that too was related to my father — a function of never wanting to experience the same sense of failure he felt about himself,” reads an excerpt from the book. “I didn’t have a clear idea of what success meant, no specific vision of being wealthy or powerful, but I was determined not to live a life of disappointment. Whatever shape my life took, I told myself there wasn’t a chance in the world I was going to toil on in frustration and lack of fulfillment.”
A Revealing Moment With Steve Jobs
In announcing the acquisition of Pixar, while waiting in a conference room, Jobs took Iger aside.
“Steve showed up at the door and [motioned me over], and said, ‘Could we go for a walk?'” Iger told Winfrey. “And I thought, ‘Oh, this can’t be good. He wants to get out of the deal, or he wants more money. He wants something.’ I just thought, ‘Why would he want to go for a walk with me on the brink of making this gigantic announcement?'”
The two moguls sat down at a bench on Pixar’s campus.
“He put his arm behind me on the bench,” he recalled. “I thought, this is very interesting. I wasn’t close with him at this point, I was getting close. And [Jobs] said, ‘I’m going to tell you something only my doctor and my wife know … and you can’t tell anybody else.'”
After revealing his cancer diagnosis, Jobs told Iger that he was giving him a chance to get out of the deal.
“I said, ‘Look, I have no idea what my legal responsibilities are here, you have my word I won’t tell people,” said Iger, who said that Jobs’ will to live to see his son’s high school graduation impacted him greatly. “I don’t really know what the right thing to do here is from a corporate perspective, but my sense is we should go through with this. I won’t back out, I appreciate the opportunity.”
Lorraine Jobs later revealed to Iger, at Steve Jobs’ funeral, that she and her husband had debated whether they could trust Iger with Jobs’ diagnosis, and that he had told her: “I love that guy.”
In the book, Iger says that the feeling was mutual.
Making a Swift Decision on ‘Roseanne’
ABC quickly axed the “Roseanne” revival in 2018 after series star and creator Roseanne Barr tweeted that former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, who is African American, looked like the offspring of the “Muslim Brotherhood & Planet of the Apes.”
When Winfrey asked Iger why he didn’t talk to Barr before making the decision to cancel the show, he replied that he “didn’t think that there was any circumstance that would make that right” and that what she had said was “blatantly racist.”
“It took about five minutes to know what we had to do,” he said, adding that that was not a situation that called for additional context or explanation.
“It seemed completely insensitive, completely disrespectful,” Iger said. “It was very clear. The decision, it was easy to make. What she had done was very, very clear. I didn’t believe any context could make this better or acceptable or could result in us forgiving her. So we did it. And you also know, in today’s world, if there’s a decision to be made by you, make it — because otherwise the world will make it for you, and that’s never good.”