Back in the days of Walt, few folks at the studio would have guessed that his nephew would become the company's torch-bearer, the person who would do more than anyone else to protect and preserve the legacy of Walt Disney's handiwork. Walt himself evidently thought little of the ne'er-do-well referred to around the lot as the "idiot nephew."
The slur was not completely unexpected, especially considering the bitter feelings between the executives sworn to Walt and those sworn to his brother. The mousy young Roy E. appeared to lack the inspiring personality and fertile imagination of his uncle, as well as the financial intellect of his father. Just what did this kid have going for him?
Foremost, Roy E. shared that same understanding of and devotion to the company's heritage and principles as his opponents did. Yet he possessed something extra, something frowned upon at "Old Disney:" a sort of "street smarts." Roy E. had a way of quietly looking outside the mouse-shaped box and recognizing that all the great ideas in the world didn't come from Walt Disney Productions. And that even ideas that came from Walt himself in 1966 weren't particularly that great 10 or 15 years—and a dozen iterations—later.
Roy wasn't afraid to recruit some rougher-edged people, like his steamrolling attorney Stanley Gold, to achieve his goals.
So, too, Roy recognized the importance of the company and its shareholders making tons of money. As much as the company would like to pretend, Walt was no longer walking the halls, cooking up grand schemes that became money-making miracles. The studio needed new ideas and fiscal restraint.
Certainly a measure of his motives, a great measure, wasn't altruistic—particularly considering that for years Roy was the company's largest shareholder. And both times he resigned from Disney's board, first in 1984 and then again in 2003, he had already been relegated to positions of powerlessness. His coups were not just attempts to selflessly "save Disney," but, just as importantly, to gain (and later regain) control.
Roy's primary interest was animation, which he rightly recognized as the heart of the company. The animated characters and films are global ambassadors for the company, seeking out customers to spend a lifetime visiting its parks and buying its products. When Roy rejoined the company in 1984, he was placed in charge of reviving Feature Animation. By 2003, Disney had dismantled the division. Fortunately with the release of Princess and the Frog days before his death, Roy lived to see traditional animation revived once again.
So, too, Roy was wise enough to recognize that the playing field had changed between his first and second battles. Both times the company was financially and creatively floundering. Yet in 1984, the company was the one concerned about preserving the legacy. So Roy had to work behind the scenes, amassing stock, brokering deals with other shareholders and suitors, and in general making Disney sweat. Twenty years later, the company looked down on its legacy. Heartlessness earned it points with Wall Street. So it was up to Roy to play the Walt Card, to drum up sympathy with the public and stage an emotional, very public crusade.
I witnessed plenty of cynicism during that second fight. In January 2004, just weeks after launching his "Save Disney" campaign, Roy personally requested to address the NFFC Disneyana fan convention. He entered this haven of Pollyannas to plead his case for rescuing Disney from itself, because its present state was so dire. What he got was a bunch of questions about what was it like growing up with Uncle Walt.
I'm sure he won over a lot of fans that day, but I also heard plenty of comments that the only thing he was interested in saving was his job and that he was dragging the company down with him. Granted, it was hard to take seriously complaints about penny-pinching on Disney's California Adventure coming from the company's most outspoken critic of EPCOT Center.
Personally, I never met Roy. I was supposed to interview him at least twice. In December 2003, a few days after Roy and Stanley Gold quit the board, I received a call from Cliff Miller, the managing partner of Shamrock, the holding company for Roy's investments. Miller shared some of Roy's plans, put me in touch with Gold, asked for my help in fighting the good fight, and suggested I interview Roy himself. We set a date, which had to be postponed and never came to be.
I also was contacted by "Merlin Jones," the former Disney writer who would run the heart of Roy's campaign, the Save Disney Web site. He asked to pick up my MousePlanet articles on SaveDisney.com. Merlin showcased the article "If Walt Were Alive" (12-5-01) when the site first went live. The site would regularly link to my and others' stories highlighting the company's misdirection (such as "Disney 2014" 1-16-04), while conveniently ignoring stories that questioned Roy's chances for success ("Coup II" 12-23-03).
In fact, Roy did pull it off. And in doing so he proved that, like his uncle, he was a master showman. His Disney mustache, Midwestern drawl, and V-neck sweaters were part of the act. Maybe he couldn't draw a mouse or calculate the quarterly EBITDA. But in his own, invaluable way, he was the "genius nephew."
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.