The last time I saw Roy E. Disney was in May, when he attended a memorial for Wayne Allwine, the voice of Mickey Mouse. People in the extended Disney family were delighted to see him, but somewhat taken aback at his gaunt appearance. Still, for a man who had battled cancer as vigorously—and optimistically—as he had, he seemed to be in pretty good shape, and he spoke with great spirit and humor that night. Best of all, he was wearing one of his trademark aloha shirts.
Now he’s gone, and the news is difficult to digest. Just two weeks ago he was making plans to attend the Palm Springs Film Festival. Death was not on his agenda. Roy Edward Disney would have been 80 on January 10, but he didn’t think or act like an old man. He only curtailed his celebrated participation in sailboat racing during the past decade.
What impressed me most about Roy was that he carried himself so lightly. Here was the son of Roy O. Disney, Walt’s older brother and lifelong partner. He grew up riding his bicycle around the Burbank studio. His first job was…
working as an assistant editor on Jack Webb’s Dragnet TV series—because it was filmed on the Disney lot. In time he left the nest and struck out on his own, but he made a dramatic return in the 1980s, a piece of Disney history I needn’t repeat.
Roy struck me as a man who followed Theodore Roosevelt’s famous advice to speak softly and carry a big stick. He knew who he was, but he was approachable and down-to-earth; he didn’t act like a billionaire, or the scion of an American dynasty. (He almost didn’t have to announce himself, since he looked so much like his famous uncle Walt.)
Disney fans owe him a lot. Not only did he rescue the animation department from possible demise in the 1980s, but he served as enabler and cheerleader for a new generation of artists as the studio reclaimed its reputation with such films as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. (The full story of this renaissance, and the clash of egos that accompanied it, is told in Don Hahn and Peter Schneider’s new documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, which is now scheduled for theatrical release in March.)
In recent years he pursued a variety of passion projects. Because he had worked on the True-Life Adventure series in the 1950s as a young man, he bemoaned the fact that the company had ignored them in recent years. He used his clout to get approval to have them all restored in 35mm, then insisted they be released on DVD. He was the driving force behind the production of Fantasia 2000, and it led in turn to the completion of Destino, an animated short which Salvador Dali had begun
under Walt Disney’s patronage a half-century earlier. It was Roy who investigated the chain of ownership of valuable Dali art in the Disney vault and discovered that the studio did had full rights to the oil paintings and sketches once the film was completed. He set out to do just that, and the resulting animated short earned an Academy Award nomination. I interviewed him prior to several screenings at the Telluride Film Festival in 2003 and he took great pride in having served as godfather to this fascinating endeavor. I can’t imagine it ever recouped its cost, but that wasn’t what motivated Roy.
The folks at Walt Disney Home Video have scheduled and canceled Destino’s DVD release several times. I interviewed Roy on-camera for a behind-the-scenes piece and hosted a featurette on other unfinished Disney projects; the folks at EMC West produced a 90-minute documentary on Disney and Dali. Let’s hope someone green-lights its release in 2010, if for no other reason than to honor Roy Disney.