Remembering Roy Disney

by Leonard Maltin
December 18, 2009 3:19 AM
5 Comments
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I snapped this photo of Roy when we attended the Philadelphia International Film Festival in March, 2007. The only reason he isn't wearing a Hawaiian shirt is that it was wintry that week!

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.)


An emblematic Dali moment from Destino


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.


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5 Comments

  • Leonard Maltin | January 24, 2010 9:52 AMReply

    Thanks for your thoughtful insight, Leonard, I knew that Walt had a brother, but appreciated reading about how much Roy Disney worked towards carrying on his brother's enduring legacy.

  • Cat | December 29, 2009 2:55 AMReply

    I am a 40 year old woman. My parents first took me to Walt Disney World in November of 1971, one month after it opened. Needless to say, a Disney fan was born. I have traveled back by car (looong road trip) or plane numerous times since 1971, the last two times with my son.
    My all time favorite Disney Movie is "Little Mermaid" with "Beauty and the Beast" running a close second. I didn't know until today that I had Mr. Roy E. Disney to thank for the return to true Disney animation at the time that gave us those movies. Just imagine all of the little girls who trick-or-treated as one of these Princesses this past Halloween. I can only wonder what his thoughts were on computer animation...
    When people used to ask me the question who would you like to meet, living or dead, I always used to answer "Walt Disney". Today, my answer changed. I would answer that question with "Walt and Roy E. Disney".
    His life and work, as his uncle and father before him, were truly a gift to the children and the children in all of us. Thank you Mr. Maltin for the education an insight into such an incredible and dedicated man.

  • Kevin | December 27, 2009 7:11 AMReply

    In 1992 I was working at The Palace theater in Hollywood and had the pleasure of working the night of the Beauty and the Beast Oscar party held by Disney Studio's of which it did win an Oscar that night. I got to witness first hand Roy Disney's character. He was such a calm and very approachable person. I coudn't believe a person of his History (being a Disney) could be such a down to earth person. He will be missed. May God be with you Roy.

  • Jim Jackman, Vice Commodore, NOSA | December 23, 2009 6:45 AMReply

    For an interesting article on the Roy Disney, the sailor, and some of his accomplishments racing sailboats, go to www.nosa.org. This article was written by Rich Roberts, formerly of the LA Times, and now Publicity Officer for NOSA (Newport Ocean Sailing Association), which runs the Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race, each year.

  • MIKE ZVIRBLIS | December 22, 2009 8:35 AMReply

    I REMEMBER CORRECTING MALTINS MISTAKES WHEN I WAS 15 IN THE NY POST.

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