With all the signs of a classic Hollywood shake-up, Dick Cook, the longtime head of Walt Disney Studios, abruptly left the company Friday afternoon after 38 years.
The news, which came just as offices were emptying out for the weekend, stunned the entertainment industry for its suddenness, even as it revealed a rift between Cook and Disney Chief Executive Robert A. Iger. The studio has had an uneven box-office performance and has been struggling creatively. It lost money in its most recent financial quarter.
A person close to Cook said the movie chief "didn't see it coming." He was summoned into a meeting and was told the studio "wanted to go in a different direction," said the person. A Disney spokesperson denied the report.
But in a meeting Friday with colleagues, Cook described himself as "a square peg in a round hole," three people said.
The first evidence of discontent bubbled to the surface in a conference call with analysts in May, when Iger described the studio's performance as "disappointing" -- and placed the blame on Burbank's doorstep, criticizing the choice of films and the execution. Cook's departure comes nearly three weeks after Disney agreed to buy comic-book publisher Marvel Entertainment, producer of the "Spider-Man" and "Iron Man" movies, for $4 billion.
Disney's box-office performance for the last year has been propped up in large part by Pixar Animation Studios. Disney's attempts to create branded franchises that can be spread throughout the company's theme parks, TV and interactive divisions, a key priority, have been lackluster. July's "G-Force," March's "Race to Witch Mountain" and last Christmas' "Bedtime Stories" were all box-office disappointments.
Still, this summer's Touchstone-branded romantic comedy "The Proposal" was a surprise hit, selling more than $161 million of tickets domestically. And April's "Hannah Montana: the Movie," based on the Disney Channel series, grossed a solid $80 million. Pixar's "Up" has already collected $415 million around the world and is likely to exceed $600 million after finishing its foreign run.
Nonetheless, problems extended beyond the box office.
Cook, the onetime Disneyland ride operator who rose to head the studio, is viewed as a traditionalist at a time when Iger is seeking new ways of doing business. Cook tended to be uncommunicative to the point of secretiveness -- a personal style that frustrated Iger, who emphasizes collaboration.
Iger nonetheless lauded Cook's contributions to Disney, in a tenure that included the launch of 63 movies that exceeded $100 million in domestic box office, the release of "Toy Story" and the first release of a digital film, "Tarzan."
"Dick Cook's outstanding creative instincts and incomparable showmanship have truly enriched this company and significantly impacted Disney's great legacy," Iger said. "We thank Dick for his tremendous passion for Disney, and his many accomplishments and contributions."
Some of Hollywood's most prominent figures reacted to the news with dismay.
Johnny Depp, star of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, said he was "shocked and very sad" to hear about Cook's abrupt departure.
"He is the utmost gentleman," said Depp, whom Cook contacted personally in London. "He said, 'I'd like you to hear it from me before you hear it from someone else or read it.' He said today was my last day. He didn't give me a reason."
In a statement, Cook said he had been contemplating stepping down for some time. "I have loved every minute of my 38 years that I have worked at Disney . . . from the beginning as a ride operator on Disneyland's steam train and monorail to my position as chairman of the Walt Disney Studios," he said. "To wrap up my Disney experience in a neatly bundled statement is close to impossible. But what I will say is . . . we have achieved many industry and company milestones."