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In praise of Ron Miller

In praise of Ron Miller

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The Disney Channel. Epcot Center. Tokyo Disneyland. "Splash" with Tom Hanks. The young Tim Burton. Roger Rabbit. Disney's first attempts at computer animation. Touchstone.

What do all these things have in common? Ron Miller was responsible for all of them and more which set a foundation for future success for the Disney Company. In 1984, it was fashionable to blame President and CEO of the Disney Company Ron Miller for ruining the company and losing the vision of his father-in-law, Walt Disney. Frank Wells and Michael Eisner were hailed as saviors who had come to rescue Disney from the hands of this ex-football player who had brought Disney to the brink of destruction.

In truth, Miller was doing quite well at re-imagining Walt's dream by bringing in new talent and attempting to break the mold of just repeating past Disney triumphs by taking a chance on previously unexplored concepts.

Walt's twenty year old daughter, Diane, met Ron Miller on a blind date. Miller who played football for the University of Southern California began dating Diane. Both Walt and Lilly approved of the young man and Ron and Diane married in a small church ceremony in Santa Barbara on May 9, 1954. (The wedding cake had Diane in Levi jeans and Ron in Bermuda shorts and bare feet but wearing a football helmet.)

In October, Ron was drafted into the Army. During their first six years of marriage, Ron and Diane had four children. After his Army service, Ron played a season as tight offensive end with the Los Angeles Rams professional football team.

"My father-in-law saw me play in two football games when I was with the L.A. Rams. In one of them, I caught a pass and *** 'Night Train' Lane let me have it from the rear. His forearm came across my nose and knocked me unconscious. I woke up in about the third quarter. At the end of the season, Walt came up to me and said, 'You know, I don't want to be the father to your children. You're going to die out there. How about coming to work with me?' I did and it was a wise decision on my part. I'm really very proud of having been a professional athlete. I think it teaches you to be competitive, to accept challenges and to see things through. I realize the image some people have of jocks, but I think that certainly has changed over the years," Miller told entertainment reporter Dale Pollock in August 1984.

However, the fact that Miller never finished school and played football became fodder for his critics to label him a "dumb jock" who lucked into marrying into an entertainment empire.

Walt's sponsored his son-in-law and got him into the Screen Director's Guild and Ron worked as a second assistant on "Old Yeller" (1957). (Miller had worked for the Disney Studios for a few months in 1954 as a liaison between WED and Disneyland before being drafted.) He soon rose up the ranks to a variety of producer positions and also directed some of Walt's lead-ins for the popular weekly Disney television show.

In 1958, Clint Walker walked out of the popular Warner Brothers television Western, " Cheyenne" for a variety of reasons. Bill Orr, who was Jack Warner's son-in-law, called in Ron Miller to audition as Walker's replacement and was impressed enough to schedule a screen test. Walt Disney stepped in and told Ron to forget acting and that he was grooming him for the position of producer. Walker resolved his differences with Warner Brothers and returned to the show in 1959. Miller never did any more acting.

Miller spent his time in the film division and his co-producer credits appear on such Disney classics as "Son of Flubber," "Summer Magic," and "That Darn Cat!" His first movie with full producer credit was "Never a Dull Moment." (1968)

"It was obviously a great atmosphere when Walt was alive. If Walt liked something, we knew damn well it had to be good; it had to be successful. Obviously, things are not the same without him. Walt was a great leader, and in his own way, a genius. For that one genius it has taken fifty geniuses to fill his void," said Miller.

Miller continued to get producing credits on films like "Tron," "Pete's Dragon," and "Escape to Witch Mountain".

As their Silverado wine website states: "In 1976 Lillian Disney, widow of Walt Disney, with her daughter Diane and son-in-law Ron Miller, purchased two vineyards in the Napa Valley. Their intention was to upgrade the property, replant to premium varietals, install new trellising and frost protection, but not to build or run a winery. Their vineyards were clearly exceptional, producing top-quality fruit and award-winning wines year after year. . . for other wineries. So construction of the Silverado winery began in 1980. Architect *** Keith designed the old California mission-style structure, which is often mistaken for an actual restoration."

In 1980, Ron was also elected president and chief operating officer of Walt Disney Productions. In addition to his other duties, he supervised all film and TV production and was a member of the board of directors and the executive committee. Miller was an associate producer on the Sunday night TV show and on several features before becoming a co-producer.

Here are some quick quotes from Ron in 1984 shortly before he was voted off and replaced with Eisner and Wells.

On Touchstone and Disney movies:

"People think we have been in the doldrums for ages and ages. We were making pictures that people thought were corny and old-fashioned, like the 'Love Bug' movies. But they were very profitable and that's the name of the game....We were actually afraid to move ahead, afraid of introducing things into a Disney picture that might be frowned upon by certain members of society. But society changes....I've received a handful of letters saying that I did the wrong thing (making 'Splash' ), that I'm putting Disney in the gutter....I don't want to forget Disney values-in fact we can't forget it. If we had made 'Splash' a year from now, I would say that SPLASH would be considered a Disney film. ...Touchstone means films that will be very sensitive, very hard and very dramatic. The perfect example is 'Country' with Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard. It's a powerful film, and I think it is fantastic."

On animation:

"I'm very close to the whole animation area, and I can truthfully tell you that the new Disney animation is as good, if not better, than the old Disney animation. We have the new generation of animators in place now, but you can't move too fast. If you do put something out there, it better be damn good."

On theme parks:

"We're not going to rest on our laurels. We realize that Epcot has to grow, just as Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom have grown. We learned a long time ago that you have to continually have new openings, new rides, new events to bring back the audience....As far as theme parks, we're going to Europe, there's no question about it, maybe with something a little bit larger than a theme park. We don't want to limit ourselves to thinking just in terms of a Magic Kingdom. It's just a question of where and when. We will find an area that has a large population nearby, obviously. We just have to pick our preference and work out arrangements with the local government. You have to have the government's sanction or else you are asking for trouble.

On recreational opportunities:

"We are looking at something called the Disney Entertainment Center, which we would open in major cities that would not compete with our California and Florida operations. We don't know exactly the combination of elements, but it would include restaurants, entertainment and some of the film innovations from Epcot. When you look at cities like Detroit and Chicago and Houston, they're hungry for entertainment. We feel very strongly that we can blend all those elements into a successful package."

On television:

"My major concern right now is that we're not on commercial network television. I've given our people a mandate that they've got to get us on because we belong there each week. There's a void in this company from not being on network television."

Just one month before he left the Disney Company in 1984, Miller said, "I think my greatest responsibility is to challenge the creative people in this organization to come up with new things we've never even considered. I hope that in 1990 we will be doing something that people never thought Disney could do. This company's going forward. And I'm very proud and pleased to be part of it."

In his memoir, "Work in Progress," Michael Eisner praised the ouster of his predecessor, Ron Miller, by Walt Disney Company's board as an "act of independence and even courage" when they asked for and received Miller's resignation on September 7, 1984. During the last twenty years, Miller has never again set foot on Disney property, has spent his time at his Silverado winery and has only spoken publicly about his time at Disney for projects done by his wife, Diane, about her father, Walt.

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