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Roy Edward Disney dies at 79; nephew of Walt helped revive animation

In the 1980s after establishing financial independence, he paved the way for a new management team that brought back to life the art form that defined Walt Disney Co.

December 17, 2009|By Dawn C. Chmielewski and James Bates
  • Roy Edward Disney, seen in his Burbank office in 1985, was the billionaire nephew of entertainment icon Walt Disney. Roy E. Disney so closely resembled his uncle's physical appearance that when he made outings to Disney theme parks or was out promoting the company's animated films, people in public would ask him if he was Walt Disney's brother.
Roy Edward Disney, seen in his Burbank office in 1985, was the billionaire… (Los Angeles Times )

Roy Edward Disney, the nephew of Walt Disney whose commitment to his uncle's creative spirit prompted him to mount revolts that led to the unseating of two of the company's chief executives and a revival of the studio's legendary animation unit, died Wednesday. He was 79.

Disney, who had been battling stomach cancer, died at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, according to Clifford A. Miller, a spokesman for Disney's company Shamrock Holdings.

Disney toiled for years in the shadow of his famous uncle and his father, Disney Studios co-founder Roy O. Disney, who ran the business side of the company for his brother. But the quiet scion would emerge as a forceful protector of Disney traditions when he believed that the company that bore the family name was headed in the wrong direction.

"People always underestimated Roy," Peter Schneider, the former president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, said recently. "You underestimate Roy at your peril, as many people have learned."

As chairman of Disney animation, Disney helped guide the studio to a new golden age of animation with an unprecedented string of artistic and box-office successes that included "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King." He was executive producer of "Fantasia/2000," the sequel to the 1940 Disney classic, and the 2004 Oscar-nominated "Destino," based on a 1945 collaboration between Walt Disney and Spanish painter Salvador Dali.

"I really credit Roy Disney completely with the renaissance of Disney animation, beginning with 'Little Mermaid' and all the way through that great amazing series of classic Disney films," said John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.

Nature filmmaker

Disney devoted the first 20 years of his career to working on nature films, including the Academy Award-winning True-Life Adventure features "The Living Desert" and "The Vanishing Prairie." His 1959 short subject "Mysteries of the Deep" received an Oscar nomination. After the death of Walt in 1966 and Roy's father in 1971, the younger Disney was spurned in his efforts to take a larger role with the company. He finally quit in 1977, but remained on its board as a director, where he was largely a figurehead.

Adrift, Disney hooked up with lawyer Stanley Gold and became a successful financier, investing in a variety of businesses that included broadcasting, soybeans and Israeli industrial concerns through Shamrock Holdings, a company named for one of Disney's racing sloops. He served as chairman of the company, which has approximately $2 billion under management.

During the 1980s, Gold, Disney and Shamrock became one of the better-known corporate raiders, making unsuccessful hostile takeover bids for companies such as Polaroid Corp. and the Wherehouse Entertainment chain of music stores. Its takeover of Central Soya, a soybean processor in Fort Wayne, Ind., would yield a sizable $170-million profit for Shamrock and its partners with its subsequent sale to an Italian agricultural concern. Through investments, Gold sought to free Disney of his financial dependence on the Disney company stock he inherited. Most were successful, although Shamrock stumbled on some, particularly a money-losing investment in sneaker maker L.A. Gear.

By 1984, Disney had grown increasingly frustrated with the Walt Disney Co., which he likened to a real estate company that happened to be in the movie business. The company had let its feature animation film business, once the cornerstone of the company, deteriorate. The company, Disney would later say, had lost its creative drive.

"I said to him, 'Roy, I think you've reached a point where you need to get all the way in or all the way out,' " Gold said. "He said, 'What does that mean?' I said, 'You either need to sell your shares in Disney and go independent, or you need to put up a fight and get rid of the managers and find real managers for this business.' "

With his financial independence established from his investments, Disney pondered with Gold and a handful of other advisors what, if anything, they could do. Finally, a decision was made to try to unseat the company's management, made awkward by the fact that Walt's son-in-law, Ron Miller, was chief executive. Disney abruptly quit the company board in 1984, sending a signal to investors and Wall Street that something was amiss. The turmoil Disney ignited eventually swept the old management group from the corporate suites.

In the end, Disney, with an alliance formed with the billionaire Bass family of Texas, returned to the board and forced out the studio management, paving the way for the hiring of a new team led by Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

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