Roy E. Disney, the nephew of Walt Disney whose powerful behind-the-scenes influence on The Walt Disney Co. led to the departure of former chief Michael Eisner, has died. He was 79. The company announced that Disney died Wednesday in Newport Beach, Calif., after a yearlong bout with stomach cancer.
Company president and chief executive Bob Iger said Disney 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,” Iger said in a statement. “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.”
Although he generally stayed out of the spotlight, Roy Disney didn’t hesitate to lead a successful campaign in 1984 to oust Walt Disney’s son-in-law after concluding he was leading the company in the wrong direction.
Nearly 20 years later, he launched another successful shareholders revolt, this time against Eisner, the man he’d helped bring in after the previous ouster.
Eisner and his wife issued a statement expressing their sympathies immediately after the company confirmed Disney’s death.
Born in 1930, Roy Disney had practically grown up with the company. His uncle Walt Disney and his father, Roy O. Disney, had co-founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio seven years before, later renaming it The Walt Disney Co.
Two years before Roy E. Disney was born, the company gave birth to its iconic cartoon character, Mickey Mouse. While Walt was the company’s creative genius, his brother was the one in charge of the company’s finances.
Starting in the 1950s, the younger Roy Disney worked for years in the family business as an editor, screenwriter and producer. Two short films he worked on were nominated for Academy Awards: the 1959 “Mysteries of the Deep,” which he wrote, was nominated as best live action short, and the 2003 film “Destino,” which he co-produced, was nominated as best animated short.
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, he ultimately had a huge impact on the company’s destiny.
In 1984, dissatisfied with the leadership Walt’s son-in-law Ron Miller was providing, 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 Eisner and Frank Wells, who led the company as a team until Wells died in 1994.
During that time, Disney rejoined the board and rose to become the company’s vice chairman and chairman of its animation division, where he helped oversee the making of such hit films as 1994’s “The Lion King.”
He also became a savvy investor over the years, forming Shamrock Holdings with his friend and fellow Disney board member Stanley Gold in 1978. The fund grew to become a major investor in California real estate, the state of Israel and other entertainment and media companies.
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.
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 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 theme parks like California’s Disneyland and Florida’s Walt Disney World.
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 percent 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 Iger, Eisner’s successor, but they reconciled and in 2005 Iger named Disney a board member emeritus and welcomed him back to company events.
Born in Los Angeles on Jan. 10, 1930, Roy Edward Disney was Roy and Edna Disney’s only child. As an adult, he often wore a mustache, which gave him a striking resemblance to his legendary uncle.
After graduating from Pomona College in 1951, he briefly worked at NBC as an assistant editor on the “Dragnet” TV series.
Disney was also an active philanthropist, supporting the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, a school founded by his father and uncle.
In 1999, he matched a gift from The Walt Disney Co. to establish an experimental theater space as part of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The theater was named the Roy and Edna Disney-CalArts Theater or Redcat.
Mark Murphy, executive director of the Redcat Theater, said Disney always had a “kind smile and a twinkle in his eye regardless of the topic on the agenda.”
In 2005, Disney pledged $10 million to establish the Roy and Patricia Disney Cancer Center at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank.
Source: Associated Press.