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THE BIZ / ALAN CITRON and JAMES BATES

Company Town : For Roy Disney, Legacy Is Everything

August 26, 1994|ALAN CITRON and JAMES BATES

When Michael D. Eisner installed the Seven Dwarfs atop Team Disney headquarters as enduring symbols of the company's heritage, he might as well have added the image of Roy E. Disney.

The painfully shy executive with the uncanny resemblance to his Uncle Walt has a habit of popping up at critical junctures in the company's history to somehow help sway events his way.

Roy Disney's fingerprints were all over the management coup that ushered in the Eisner-Frank G. Wells regime some 10 years ago. Now he's helped to derail the ambitious plans of Wells' would-be successor--studio Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg.

"Roy's a very clever, skillful man," one associate said Thursday. "He's not openly aggressive, but he always gets what he wants. Maybe the cardigan sweaters lull people."

Sources close to the company say that from the start, Roy Disney was openly hostile to Katzenberg succeeding Wells as president. As a close friend of Wells, he resented Katzenberg's intense lobbying effort. But even before that, Disney, who is in charge of supervising the company's animation department, often complained that Katzenberg was taking too much credit for the spectacular success of animated features such as "The Lion King" and "Aladdin."

Despite Katzenberg's phenomenal success in managing Disney's studio operations--annual filmed entertainment operating income alone rose from $2.2 million in 1984 to $622.2 million in 1993--Eisner and the other board members shared Roy Disney's reservations about putting the studio chief in a corporate role. Sources say Disney's behind-the-scenes work--augmented by the vociferous protests of director Stanley P. Gold, who heads the Disney heir's Shamrock Holdings--clearly eased the way for Eisner to announce Katzenberg's departure.

Board member Raymond L. Watson said Thursday that Disney "has a legitimacy that comes from both the amount of stock he owns and his heritage," adding, "When he speaks at the board meetings or speaks to animators, they know this is not just a paid executive but someone whose life has been nurturing the company."

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At 64, Disney holds the title of vice chairman of the board, but his role is much more expansive than that. He demanded and received the job of supervising animation in the 1980s, when Eisner and Katzenberg wanted to scrap the division. He has since become a trusted adviser to Eisner, who sees in him a non-threatening presence who also carries the prized family name.

Sources say their bond has grown even stronger since the company was shaken by two dramatic recent events: Wells' death in a helicopter crash in April and Eisner's emergency quadruple heart bypass surgery last month. Disney rushed in from his seaside castle in Ireland to be at Eisner's side, and a company statement pointedly named him as Eisner's stand-in.

It was an unaccustomed moment in the sun. Despite inheriting Walt Disney's physical features, Roy inherited practically none of his late uncle's famous charisma, close friends readily concede.

Puffing on an ever-present cigarette, he can usually be found holding up the wall at company events. One entertainment analyst says Disney has played no visible role in the company's investor gatherings in recent years, though Eisner and Wells may have been throwing him a bone at the annual meeting in Florida earlier this year when they allowed him to make the formal announcement that the company was finally releasing its classic animated tale "Snow White" on videocassette.

Aside from his work at the family store, Disney has profited handsomely from Shamrock Holdings, the investment company led by Gold. The company made a fortune buying and selling soybean giant Central Soya.

While he has cut back on his work the last three years, people close to Disney say his passion for protecting the company's legacy is what keeps him going, long after he could have retired on a nest egg valued at $540 million.

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His interest in animation dates to his childhood, when Walt Disney tried out concepts for movies such as "Pinocchio" on his young nephew. Roy, whose father co-founded the studio, later went to work on the Burbank lot as a film editor, producer and writer. But he was resented be some colleagues because of his family connection and derided by others at the time as the "idiot nephew" for his diffident and uncommunicative manner.

Even while serving on the board before the 1984 power shift, Disney rarely said much in meetings, something friends now attribute to the overall lack of respect he was accorded then.

That changed drastically 10 years ago, when he and Gold engineered the ouster of the company's beleaguered management team in favor of Eisner and Wells, who orchestrated one of the most successful turnarounds in U.S. corporate history.

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While Disney spends much of his time at his vacation home in Ireland, jetting there in his private plane, sources say he is still involved in the day-to-day operations of the company's vaunted animation department, which was supervised by him, Katzenberg and animation chief Peter Schneider before the recent upheaval.

People close to the studio say it was Roy Disney who pushed the company into paying for the expensive automated equipment that allowed its animators to move into the modern age. On the creative side, one executive describes Disney as "a big-picture guy," whereas Katzenberg focused on the finer points of character and script development.

"No one plays the bully role in animation. It's too collaborative for that," said one source. "But Roy puts forward ideas. He's very creative, he gives great notes and he's certainly no idiot. It's not just by luck that all this this has happened to him."

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