To hear Roy Disney tell the tale, he basically owes his entire career in animation to his mother needing a babysitter.
"When my Mother needed to go shopping, she'd drop me off with my Dad's office," Roy explained. "And my Dad would eventually say 'Get out of my office and find someone else to play with.' So I'd then wander the halls and see what the other people were working on."
Of course, the place where Disney's dad worked wasn't your average office. But -- rather -- the old Hyperion Studios. And what seven-year-old Roy got to see as he wandered up & down those hallways were animators hard at work on the studio's first feature-length film, "Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs."
Which -- you'd think -- would have compelled Roy O. Disney's son to become an artist. But that wasn't actually the case.
As this Disney Legend told the crowd that had assembled at the Prince Music Theatre last Saturday night, Roy's dream was to design airplanes.
Photo by Jeff Lange
"I grew up right under in the flight path for Lockheed. And back then, their Burbank plant were cranking out two new B17s every day," he explained. "I'd see those planes flying over the house and think that designing stuff like that looked like a really good job."
So with that goal in mind, Roy started college in 1946 at the very young age of 16. He then studied engineering for two years at Pomona College 'til a failing grade in calculus pretty much grounded his dream of ever designing airplanes.
From there, Roy started his show business career the way that so many other people have: At the very bottom. Not working at his father & uncle's company, mind you. But as a page at NBC. And when that job ended after five or six months, Disney then became an assistant editor on the "Dragnet" TV show.
Once production of that Jack Webb series wrapped for the season ... Well, given that this early incarnation of "Dragnet" was actually shot on the Disney lot, Roy just walked down the hall to Disney's own editing department and applied for a job. Which is how he eventually wound up working on the True-Life Adventure series.
Now it's important to stress here that Roy never ever played the "Do you know who my uncle is ?" card when applying for work at the Mouse Factory. Which is not to say that his Dad -- from time to time -- didn't try to lure him into Roy O.'s side of the operation.
"Dad tried to push me into the accounting side of things," Roy remembered. "But I wasn't really interested in that. I enjoyed writing & editing those nature films. Taking all that raw footage and then finding a way to turn that into a coherent story."
Mind you, all those years of dealing with story problems wound up serving Roy well. Particularly in 1984 after he and Stanley Gold had helped to oust then-Disney CEO Ron Miller and installed Michael Eisner & Frank Wells as the new heads of the Mouse House.
Now Roy (Who had spent his formative years wandering the hallways at Hyperion as well as at the "new studio" at Burbank) felt a special affinity for animation. Which is why he asked Michael and Frank to put him in charge of that department. Which -- to be frank -- could use all the help that it could get right about then. Given that Walt Disney Productions was getting ready to release "The Black Cauldron."
Having seen a rough cut of this Ted Berman / Richard Rich film, Roy knew that "The Black Cauldron" wouldn't do all that well at the box office. More to the point, given that the studio had just spent $25 million (A truly astronomical sum back in 1985) to produce this 70MM disappointment ... Well, Disney was worried that Eisner & Wells would take one look at this movie and then shut down Feature Animation forever.
But as he wandered the halls of the old Feature Animation building, Roy discovered two young animators -- John Musker & Ron Clements -- hard at work on another project. Which was an animated adaptation of Eve Titus' "Basil of Baker Street."
" Ron & John had recognized early on that 'The Black Cauldron' had some serious problems," Roy explained. "So they begged to be taken off of that project so that they could then work on a film of their own. And you know who was a good friend of theirs back then? Working on his own film right across the hall? John Lasseter."
Roy immediately saw the potential in "Basil of Baker Street." Which is why he arranged for Eisner & Wells to meet with Musker & Clements one Saturday morning to sell these Disney executives on the idea of putting this new film into production.
"And the 'Basil' storyboards ran down one entire hallway, through some animator's room, then down another hallway," Roy laughed. "And Michael & Frank were big guys -- six feet tall -- and they filled whatever space they stood in. And Ron & John are walking them down this corridor, trying to act out the story as they went. With Eisner & Wells really struggling to connect what Musker & Clements were telling them with the images that they were seeing on the boards. It was pretty funny."
In the end (in spite of the fact that Michael & Frank never quite did get what was going on with all of "Basil" 's storyboards) Eisner & Wells did eventually greenlight production of "Basil of Baker Street." Which led to a second golden age of Disney Animation.
Of course, that was 23 years ago. But the way Roy sees it ... Things today honestly aren't all that different from the way they were back in 1984. I mean, Ron & John are back at WDFA working with their old pal John Lasseter. Once again trying to revive & revitalize Walt Disney Feature Animation by putting an ambitious new project into production.
And Roy? He's back too. When Bob Iger negotiated that settlement with Disney & Stanley Gold back in July of 2005, Disney's soon-to-be-CEO asked Walt's nephew what he wanted. And Roy replied:
"I really want a job. Give me an office and pay me something. After all, everyone knows me there. So let me walk around and see what's going on."
So, some 70 years after Edna Disney first dropped off Roy at Hyperion and Roy O. then shooed his son out of his office ... Roy E. is once again wandering the halls at Disney, sticking his very-familiar-looking face into offices, helping out where he can.
And for some reason ... That just seems right.
Special thanks to Leonard Maltin for doing such a superb job interviewing Roy Disney this past Saturday night.All of the stories that are featured in today's article were actually culled from Maltin's interview with Disney.
Roy E. Disney is a wonderful addition to the Disney staff, I always wanted to hear HIS story, we know fair mounts of info bout him in his Uncle Walt's Biographies. but nothing more than his "True Life" productions. I'm proud that there's a Disney still hangin' around the studio, if any you have Your Host, Walt Disney...Mr. Martin interviews Diane Disney Miller bout handling the torch and she replied something like, Never felt the need to uphold my dad's legacy, my sister worked for the studio a couple of months till she died. my main thing is keeping Dad's history alive for the next generations of fans." Now I don't wan'na start a riot here, but here's something we've been curious about....Why didn't Roy E. Disney become C.E.O after Ron Miller's removal? since Cousin Diane passed the torch, shouldn't Roy be next in line for the throne? again sorry for causing a riot.
Maybe he didn't think he was fit for the job, Oswald ;)
Oh you silly rabbit, Oswald ...
I don't think Diane passed the torch to Roy ... I think her husband, Ron Miller, was the one hand-selected by Walt and was the family member being groomed for the throne. He sat there for a short time until he was unceremonially dethroned when Michael Eisner was appointed king (now there's a story with Shakesperian overtones -- and maybe someday we'll hear Ron's take on the whole situation).
In some ways it's a shame that Roy had a major role in all that. Some people, including myself, think that Ron Miller was taking the company in directions it needed to go.
Ron Miller opened up the vaults to home video -- bringing the company millions if not billions in new revenue and extending the lives of several fantastic animated characters by introducing them to new generations of children.
Miller created Touchstone for more adult product and green-lit several productions like "Splash," "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" and "Ruthless People" -- entertaining films that made piles of money and launched or revived the careers of Tom Hanks, Bette Midler, director Ron Howard and others.
Ron Miller supported animation and "The Fox in the Hound" was an important training ground for Glen Keane and others who were later responsible for the second golden era of Disney feature animation. Sure, he made some mistakes, but none as costly as the failures of Eisner.
Unfortunately Miller was forced out ... and some of the credit he's due was given to Eisner (who did have a good run with Frank Wells).
mnmears, you certainly sound very knowledgeable, so maybe I'm wrong, but I could have SWORN it was Eisner who did all those things ... opened the video vault, launched Touchstone, etc.
I thought he even talked about all that stuff in Work in Progress ...
I think the historical record (including stock reports) will bear out that Ron Miller was helping to drive the company into the ground. He was a football player that married into the business and Walt decided to try and teach him how to make movies so he wouldn't get a head injury. (I mean him no disrespect. I would have done a worse job in his position.)
Remember Walt Disney Productions was in imminent danger of a hostile take-over and buyout in the 80s when Roy stepped in with Eisner. Saul Steinberg was trying to buy the company and had stated plans to close the animation studio and sell off the parks.
Yes, Ron was going in some new directions, but not all of them were gems like "Splash". Remember "Tex"? Or "Tron". These films were suppose to grab the teen audience during the summer of '82. And while you might have fond memories of the first foray into CG, it was a flop. A big one.
It was the summer of E.T. (Which also buried Bluth's little "NIMH" project.)
Read some of the remenisences of the folks who worked during the Miller regime (or the stock reports). You will find that for the most part, the company was barely managing to tread water most of the time.
WDWacky, mnmears is right. Miller founded touchstone, but Eisner exploited it and made it more profitable when he came aboard. Eisner did, however, start Hollywood Pictures, another short-live division of Disney.