December 17, 2009 8:09 am

Veteran of Disney’s boardroom battles

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For much of his life, Roy Disney, who died on Wednesday of stomach cancer aged 79, was overshadowed by his uncle Walt, the animation genius who revolutionised American cinema with classics such as Snow White and Pinocchio.

But the younger man left his own legacy on the company due to his role in two boardroom battles that unseated established executives and led to an improvement in the group’s fortunes.

As one of Walt Disney’s largest shareholders, Disney cared deeply about the company. Yet his concern was rooted in more than the value or performance of his stake. He felt great pride that his father Roy had co-founded the group with Walt. “The pride that he had in the company transcended that of a large shareholder,” says a friend who worked closely with Disney. “It was more than a holding ... it was his father’s legacy.”

A keen nature film maker – one of his short films was nominated for an Oscar – Disney worked at the company until 1977, when he resigned as an executive following a disagreement with the then management team. But he continued to own a substantial stake and remained on the board, where he was able to keep track of its activities.

Like his uncle, he adored animation and became dismayed in the early 1980s when the studio’s animated output declined in quality. By 1984, following several years working outside the company as a dealmaker and investor, he acted to protect the company’s heritage when he resigned from the board.

After forging an alliance with the billionaire Bass family, he was able to remove the group’s management and eventually installed Michael Eisner, a highly regarded Hollywood executive, to run the company.

Mr Eisner restored the Walt Disney studio’s fortunes in animation with hits such as The Lion King and The Little Mermaid. But relations with Disney deteriorated and by the beginning of the 21st century the two men fell out spectacularly. After a long and bitterly contested boardroom battle, Mr Eisner stepped down as chief executive in a victory for Disney and Stanley Gold, his long-time financial partner and adviser.

“Roy saved the company on at least two occasions,” said Clifford Miller, managing director of Shamrock Holdings, Disney’s investment firm. “He kept the flame alive in terms of animation.”

With Bob Iger installed as chief executive, Disney returned to the company fold. “It was a true love affair with Disney [the studio] from the moment Roy was born until the day he died,” added Mr Miller. “Nothing pleased him more than a good story.”

Disney was an early proponent of computer animation. He was also a key supporter of Pixar, the animation studio formed by ex-Walt Disney animators that was eventually brought into the company fold, where it has produced hit after animated hit.

John Lasseter, Walt Disney’s chief creative officer and a co-founder of Pixar, said: “Roy was a visionary and passionate supporter of the art form, and he was all about quality. I was always impressed that he would make time for someone like me when I was fresh out of college, and he continued to support and encourage me throughout my career.”

Disney was also happy to be back inside the company. He bore a close physical resemblance to his uncle and in his later years could often be found eating his lunch in the company dining room at the studio building in Burbank.

He is survived by his wife, Leslie DeMeuse Disney, his daughters, Abigail and Susan, and his sons, Roy and Timothy.

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