This snapshot, which I took at The Animation Guild’s annual Christmas party on December 12, 2003, was the closest I ever got to meeting Roy E. Disney, who died yesterday, December 16th, at the age of 79. He appeared there in the midst of an epic struggle for control of the Disney Empire with Michael Eisner, in which he eventually prevailed three years later. (See my report on his surprise appearance at the party here.)
Most frequently identified as Walt Disney’s nephew, it would be more appropriate to note that he was the son of Roy O. Disney, Walt’s older brother who was the Disney Studio’s co-founder and long-time CEO; after all, Roy E. Disney, like his father, made his mark not so much as a creative producer, but as a creative executive who helped steer the Walt Disney Company to become one of the world’s major entertainment companies. In the process, he helped rescue a foundering company more than once, making Disney a real player in Hollywood in both live action and animation.
The animation community has long recognized his efforts to pull the studio’s animation operations from the brink of extinction in 1984, after he managed to oust president and CEO Ron Miller, Walt Disney’s son-in-law, in favor of the team of Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells; it turns out the three were essentially ready to ditch animation to concentrate on energizing its moribund live-action slate, but Roy Disney persuaded them to do otherwise. Luckily, Katzenberg took up animation with a vengeance and soon made the studio into an animation powerhouse which came to dominate theatrical animation in ways it had never done before. (I suspect these efforts were made possible by Katzenberg’s equally impressive work in the live-action arena.)
In addition to his role as an executive, Roy E. Disney had a strong sense of history which led him to try to extend his father’s and uncle’s legacy. When Fantasia 2000 was in production, I was told by several artists on the project that Michael Eisner was personally supervising it, I immediately realized that Eisner was acting as an agent on behalf of Disney. He also pushed the studio to resurrect and finish Salvador Dali’s Destino in 2003, 58 years after the project was started. Incidentally, a non-legacy project he also championed, without success, was trying to get the Disney Studio to allow Richard Williams to finally complete The Thief and the Cobbler the way he wanted to.
For a quick overview of the various boardroom battles Disney waged with his long-time business partner Stanley Gold, check out this Financial Times story; for his role in animation, see Charles Solomon’s appreciation in The Los Angeles Times. But if you’re really interested in his life and career, then by all means take a look at the six-part Archive of American Television oral history interview, the first part of which is embedded below.