Remembering Roy E. Disney

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Roy Edward Disney

January 10, 1930 – December 16, 2009

On December 2, 2003, Jim Hill published an article I had written entitled, "Who is Roy Edward Disney?" I wrote it about one week after Roy received a 50-year service pin from the Disney Company.

Both Roy's father and uncle (Roy Oliver and Walt) passed away in December, and I was saddened to learn Wednesday afternoon that Roy Edward after a battle with cancer also passed away during this holiday season.

I had the pleasure of meeting Roy several times over the years and I genuinely liked him, although anyone who has tried to interview him will tell you that it was sometimes difficult to get a focused response from him. He told wonderful stories, but was "all over the map" when you tried to tie him down to a particular memory.

He did indeed love the Disney Company, its history and its spirit—and it was his efforts that revitalized feature animation production at Disney (although he hated Hunchback of Notre Dame because he thought it was "too dark") and was the behind-the-scenes champion for numerous projects including the completion of "Destino" the Salvador Dali short.

Roy E. Disney poses during the opening of Mickey's Toontown at Disneyland. Photo by Frank Anzalone.

Roy Edward Disney is the son of the vastly underrated Roy Oliver Disney, the brother of Walt and a primary force behind the Disney Company who passed away two months after the opening of the Magic Kingdom in Florida.

Many people still make the mistake of thinking that Roy Edward is the brother of Walt Disney, and he often got identified as such in stories probably because of the similarity with his father's name. Very much like his father, Roy Edward was a shy person who preferred avoiding public appearances and speeches, and much preferred being left alone. (However, he was an intensely competitive sailor, which reveals the ambition and determination behind that calm, quiet exterior.) Over the past decade, he had become more accustomed to being a public spokesman and to being the protector of the Disney legacy.

Author Bob Thomas, who wrote biographies of Roy Oliver as well as Walt, described Roy Edward as: "He isn't impressed with himself, or what he has done. He is essentially a very shy person. He was an only child, so the family doted on him. He also was always in the shadow of his uncle."

Roy is the nephew of Walt Disney, and used to take some amusement in sharing the story of Walt taking him around the Disney Studio and saying, "Here is my idiot nephew," an unfortunate nickname that stuck for many years.

"Walt could be tough on me, but God knows he was tough on everybody," remembered Roy Edward. "I got along with him well. If he liked what I did, that was great. If he didn't like what I did, it was tough. That wasn't just with me, that was with anybody."

Roy remembered an episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World Of Color that contained a song Roy liked. However, as Walt watched the screening, he started nervously tapping his fingers on the armrest of his chair, a warning sign that he was bored or not pleased.

"When it was over," Roy recalled, "He said, 'I really don't like that song at all, Roy.' He then took what I had done and ripped it all apart. But in the end it came out as one of his favorite shows."

The show was "The Legend Of El Blanco," and originally aired September 25, 1966, roughly three months before Walt's death and with a different musical approach that Walt preferred. The show reflected Roy's affection and respect for Hispanic culture.

In March 2001, the Roy E. Disney Center for the Performing Arts and the Hispanic Culture Foundation were the recipient of a million-dollar donation. Roy E. Disney, then vice chairman of the Board of Directors of The Walt Disney Company, gave a personal gift of $500,000 to the Foundation, and the Disney Foundation contributed another $500,000. The donations were used to help construct a $22 million center for performing arts at the National Hispanic Cultural Center located in the historic Barelas neighborhood of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

At the time, Frank Figueroa, president of the Hispanic Culture Foundation said, "We are elated with Mr. Disney's gift and that Mr. Disney is so supportive of our efforts to preserve Hispanic culture and performing arts for the entire nation. The Roy E. Disney Center of the Performing Arts will become a premier site for performers and visitors from all over the world. Mr. Disney is leaving an amazing legacy, by making our dream of a National Hispanic Cultural Center a reality."

Roy E. Disney (right) helped Michael Eisner (left) and Mickey Mouse dedicate the "Time Castle" at Disneyland in 1995. Photo by Frank Anzalone.

Roy Edward was born on January 10, 1930. As a school kid, Roy was teased mercilessly by his fellow classmates who wondered if he had been the model for Goofy, which probably added to his shyness. Graduating from Pomona College with an English degree in 1951, he found it difficult to find work at the Disney Studios because he was considered one of "Roy's boys," which meant the financial end of the business rather than one of "Walt's boys," which was the creative end.

Producer Harry Tytle was confused when Roy's mother, Edna, pleaded with him to try and find a creative job for her son at the studio. Instead, Roy got a job editing the early black and white Dragnet shows for Jack Webb, who was filming the series on the backlot of the Disney Studio (until the noise of building things for Disneyland in the warehouses became so loud that it forced him to find another location).

Roy began working for the Disney Studio in 1954 as an assistant film editor on the True-Life Adventure films. His first True-Life Adventure was Mysteries Of The Deep, which was nominated for an Academy Award but didn't win—and Roy claimed that, "I am still sore about that." He helped write narration for animal-related television shows from 1957 to 1971, and also directed (1973 to 1978) and produced (1968 to 1977) many of the same type of shows.

Another Disney film editor, Stormy Palmer, recalled one day when during a break, Roy Edward was bouncing a ball off a wall and it got accidentally stuck on the roof. Roy Oliver, who was then president of the company, was hosting an important guest—and as the two were talking in his office, suddenly saw through the office window Roy Edward climbing up on the roof. "Yes, my son works here," Roy Oliver reported quipped, "He's the one on top of the camera building retrieving that ball."

Roy Edward's affection and respect for his father is well known, as was his frustration that his father does not get significant recognition for his contributions to the Disney Company. "In his heart of hearts, he would have loved to have had more credit, I believe, but he didn't want to take away from his little brother. He recognized very clearly that the name Walt Disney was gold, so why mess around with it?" stated Roy Edward in an interview several years ago.

While Walt could be a tough boss, he was also a warm uncle. One time when a young Roy Edward was suffering from chicken pox, his uncle sat on the edge of his bed and told him the story of Pinocchio, which was then in development.

"He scared me to death with the stuff about the whale and everything else," remembered Roy many decades later, "I remember it very, very sharply and very clearly even today. He was that good a storyteller. But when the movie came out, it was big letdown for me. It was nowhere near as good as Walt's version."

Roy remembered his father telling him that as boys, he and Walt slept in the same bed and sometimes Walt would wet the bed. "He peed all over me then, and he's still doing it today," Roy Oliver joked. (However, Roy Edward knew when his father had a tough time with Walt at work because if his father pulled into the driveway and slammed his car door hard, then "you knew it was time to go do your homework.")

Roy's engagement to his wife Patty was announced the day before the opening of Disneyland in 1955. While it was obviously a difficult time for Walt, Walt made a point of going out of his way the next day to greet the couple at the front gate of the park to let them know how happy he was for them.

Roy was so shy that when he asked Patty to marry him, he sent the proposal in a five-page letter with the note that if she accepted, to please call him in Utah where he was shooting a nature movie. She tried to reach him but couldn't track down a phone near him, so she finally resorted to sending him a telegram with just two words: "Hell, yes."

Roy was first elected to the board of directors in 1967 shortly after Walt passed away. In 1971, his father suffered a stroke. Only a few days earlier, Roy Edward's then 14-year-old son Roy Patrick Disney had been playing on the roof of the family home and tumbled off, leaving him in a coma fighting for his life. One of Roy Edward's strongest memories was being at St. Joseph's Hospital in Burbank where Walt had passed away, with Roy's father in room 421 and his son in room 321, and racing between the two rooms. Roy Patrick recovered, but Roy Oliver did not.

Shortly thereafter, Roy found himself shoved aside by new executives at the Disney Company, and he left the company in 1977 with little hope of being more than being a figurehead on the Board.

However, the law firm Roy Edward had been using assigned him a new lawyer named Stanley Gold, who was as outgoing as Roy was reserved. It was Gold who determined that the Disney family was too dependent on the Disney Company—not only financially, but also for such things as travel arrangements and accounting services. So with Gold's assistance, a company named Shamrock was formed (named after the boat that Roy Edward raced at the time). For a time, Shamrock became one of the nation's top takeover firms.

Gold, who was fearful that the Disney family's holding were shrinking fast because of the poor performance of the Disney Company, literally told Roy Edward: "We have to make a decision. We need to either get your money out of the company, or try to get new management in at Disney." Making matters complicated was the fact that the current management was being led by Walt's son-in-law, Ron Miller.

Roy E. Disney (shown here with retired Disneyland President Jack Lindquist, Patty Disney and fellow Disney Legend Ron Dominguez  in 2005) was named a Disney Legend in 1998. Photo by Frank Anzalone.

Roy Edward immediately resigned as director, which sent waves through Wall Street that there was trouble in the Magic Kingdom. Gold and Roy Edward orchestrated a big investment from the wealthy Bass family of Texas, which formed an alliance with Disney stockholders that resulted in Michael Eisner and Frank Wells being installed as the new management team in 1984. Roy Edward returned in 1984 as vice chairmen of the board, and head of the animation department.

Eisner had even considered dismantling the animation department since it was costly and time consuming, and there were enough classics in the vaults. It was Roy Edward who specifically requested being given the job of overseeing the animation department, and under his guiding hand, revitalized the Company with hits like Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast. Supposedly, one of the reasons Eisner did it was that if the animation department collapsed as he expected, it then he could always point that the collapse came under the hands of a Disney.

Former Disney animation chief Peter Schneider stated in 2000 to a reporter that "the single most important thing in the history of animation at the company was Roy Disney's persuasion in 1984 of then-president Wells to spend a mere $10 million on computer equipment to restore the animation quality lost through previous cuts. Not only did it restore colors and blushes, it also led to innovations in movement and forged the kind of style that distinguishes such films as Beauty And The Beast."

Roy was also thrust into the role as protector of Disney family traditions, and while his influence became more and more muted over the years, it was still enough for him to authorize the Disney Company to assist Leslie Iwerks on the book and documentary about her father Ub Iwerks, to make sure that the Salvador Dali-Disney collaboration "Destino" was finally completed, to insist the Disney Institute Animation Event continue, rescue a metal box of important family papers from his garage and donating them to the Disney Archives, and much, much more.

Roy was a valuable resource. and his presence on commentaries for the Disney Channel and special edition DVDs supplied a validity that could not be achieved any other way. In 2000, Michael Eisner told reporters that "(Roy's) been in the Walt Disney Company for 69 years which is his age. His name is above the door. And he has a historical perspective and appreciation of the culture of the company that is unmatched."

However, Roy could be quite sharp in his comments when he needed to be. A former Disney animation chief once said, "There's no mystery about how Roy feels about anything." Roy didn't feel the Disney Company should have made Hunchback Of Notre Dame and he didn't care for some scenes in Lion King, like the sequence set to Elton John's "Can You Feel The Love Tonight?" and had no hesitation in letting people know those opinions.

Eventually, Roy became so concerned about the direction Michael Eisner was taking the Disney Company that he created a Save Disney campaign that was instrumental in bringing in Robert Iger to Eisner's position.

While many people remember Roy Edward as "just a businessman," I will tell you that from talking to him, he was much more than just that aspect. I think his father would have been very proud at what his son accomplished and for Roy Edward's efforts in keeping the magic alive.

My sincere condolences to the entire Disney family on the loss of a good man who I was fortunate to know briefly.

The following is a message Bob Iger sent to cast members yesterday:

It is with great sadness that I inform you of the passing of our friend and colleague Roy E. Disney. After a courageous year-long fight with stomach cancer, he passed away peacefully this morning at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, surrounded by his loving family.

Roy played an important role in our lives here at Disney, and in the success of our Company over many years. Along the way, he touched many of us in a personal way. During his 56-year association with the Company, his true passion and focus was preserving and building upon the amazing legacy of Disney animation that was started by his father and uncle. His commitment to the art of animation was unparalleled and will always remain his personal legacy and one of the greatest contributions to Disney's past, present and future.

Roy not only helped to keep the legacy alive, but he also embraced new technologies, and gave the filmmakers the tools they needed to tell their stories in new and exciting ways. He encouraged talent, and loved working with the creative community. And they loved working with him.

Roy was a Disney Legend in every sense of the word, and his contributions to this great company have been profound and will always be remembered. For the next week we will be flying the Disney flag at half mast here at the Studio and at our parks, and I know you join me in sending thoughts and prayers to Roy's wife, Leslie, his four children, and his 16 grandchildren. For those who wish to pay their respects, the family has requested that donations be made in Roy's name to the California International Sailing Association (CISA) to benefit youth sailing.