At the outset of a “life celebration” for the late Roy E. Disney on what would have been his 80th birthday on Sunday, Disney chief Robert Iger surprised and delighted a packed house at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood by announcing that the studio’s animation building in Burbank–the one with the whimsical Mickey Mouse Sorcerer’s hat–will now bear Roy’s name. A long, loud cheer went up from the crowd as an artist’s rendering of the new building facade was beamed onto the theater screen. What a perfect tribute to the man who rescued Disney animation from possible extinction in the 1980s and oversaw its renaissance.
John Lasseter also pointed out that it was Roy who was responsible for…
Pixar’s first outside income when he made a deal for the fledgling company to develop a computer-assisted animation program for Disney, later referred to as CAPS–Computer Animation Production System–in the late 1980s. (John also had the crowd laughing with recollections of Roy’s fondness for expensive airplanes and fast cars.)
Later, longtime Disney exec Peter Schneider remembered accompanying Roy when they made that deal. Pixar was then part of LucasFilm, and when they arrived at their Northern California headquarters Roy asked for an ashtray. First John, then George Lucas, hesitantly told him that smoking was not allowed in the building. Roy ignored their explanation and once again requested an ashtray. Eventually he was given one and nothing more was said. When they were driving back to the airport, Peter wanted to tell his new boss how uncomfortable the experience had made him, but Roy read his mind, and said, “Peter, we were negotiating!” Roy E. Disney was one smart cookie.
In fact, Roy was many things: husband, father of four, world-class sailor and competitor, astute businessman, and filmmaker. (Yes, he was creative, too, having grown up around the family business, where he absorbed some valuable lessons. He put them to work in the nature documentaries he shot, wrote and directed for the studio, and later sat in on story sessions for the animated features–where his ideas were valued.) All facets of his life were explored by family members, friends, and colleagues in fond reminiscences and film clips.
But my favorite story of the day, because it says so much about the man, was told by animator extraordinaire Glen Keane, who drew Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Tarzan, and many other great characters. One time he and Roy were attending a Disney shareholders meeting in Orlando, and as they approached the conference center a security guard stopped Roy in his tracks because he didn’t have a name badge. Roy replied, “Where do I get one?” and the man pointed to a series of tables nearby with people waiting in line. Without another word Roy took his place in line. When they got to the table-a woman looked up from her papers, recognized him, and stuttered, “Mr. Disney, you certainly don’t need a name badge.” “Yes, I do,” he responded, telling her that the guard had asked for one. Someone hastily prepared a badge, and the guard silently waved them inside. Glen was incredulous. “I said to Roy, ‘You could have fired that guy’ and he said, ‘Why would I do that? He’s doing exactly what we pay him to do.’ “
And that was Roy Edward Disney. We read about puffed-up CEOs and overpaid executives all the time, but it isn’t often we hear of, let alone meet, someone who likes people, treats them well, and wears his power lightly. Like his father, and his famous uncle Walt, Roy was a rare bird, and he will be missed.