From the outset, the interview seemed to be going off course. While most Hollywood CEOs wallow in self-congratulation, the individual I was meeting with was both candid and self-effacing: He promptly volunteered his “disappointment” with one of his Disney studio’s major releases. He further confessed that he was angry with himself for “wasting time” by backing political candidates. “I’m letting too many things pile up on me,” he acknowledged, shaking his head in frustration.
No, this was not an interview with Bob Iger, but rather with the mythic founder, Walt Disney. I was never clear why Disney had agreed to a rare sit-down interview with me in December 1965, but, sitting across from him at the Disney commissary, I enjoyed his grumpy self-admonitions. I was also bemused that this Hollywood icon, who’d bought entertainment to millions, seemed by nature both dour and intensely conservative.
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This week, at a moment of historic triumph for the Disney empire, I found myself reviewing notes of my Walt Disney encounter (I was then with the New York Times). I came away with the conviction that if old Walt and Bob Iger had somehow found themselves working together, it would have been an intriguingly dicey relationship: A thoughtful liberal and master at corporate annexation on one side, and a true visionary and crusty Midwest reactionary on the other – both men, by nature, rule-breakers.
To be sure, old Walt Disney would have been thrilled by Disney’s exalted position in today’s Hollywood – an unthinkable 35% of the total box office and growing, with $7.67 billion in global ticket sales. The Lion King’s billion-dollar two-week gross might have bewildered him, yet he likely would have critiqued the movie’s photorealistic reimagining – was it animation as he knew it? Viewing the sheer scope of the Disney empire, he might have worried about the possible over-reach of the Star Wars universe, yet, on the other hand, wanted more from the gifted artisans of Pixar.
Walt Disney surely would have welcomed Iger’s tutoring in the art of navigating Wall Street. At the time of our meeting, he admitted he was struggling to raise $100 million for what he called “my new Disneyland East” in Florida, plus another $60 million to expand his 10-year-old Disneyland in Orange County, building a Tomorrowland attraction. But there was more: He wanted to create an Alpine Village in Sequoia National Forest. He also was struggling to raise $80 million for a Cal Arts campus.
And money was a problem. Wall Street was aware that five of the seven major Hollywood studios were in the red and that MGM was about to default on its bank loans. Walt also knew that corporate raiders like Kirk Kerkorian were staring at the Hollywood assets; he was determined to keep the barbarians behind the gates.
With it all, old Walt would have admired Iger’s stepped-up pace of production at the studio — especially with the new “streamers” — but would have been fretful about subject matter.
“We do our best when we work with our own stories,” he said to me in 1965. “People keep urging me to make Don Quixote, but we’d be crucified if we didn’t get it perfect.” He added: “I got trapped into making Alice in Wonderland again and it was a terrible disappointment. It’s tough to transfer whimsy to the screen.”
Old Walt obviously loved animation but understood the need to embellish his features with stars like Dick Van Dyke, Fred MacMurray and Yvette Minieux. And he was accustomed to getting battered by his brother, Roy, about ever-expanding budgets.
Had Iger told old Walt about his passion for acquisition, he might have stirred the same questions that some in Hollywood are asking. Can these entities sustain their creative momentum? Will 20th Century Fox thrive as a Disney stepchild — its initial releases, developed pre-acquisition, have not been promising. Has Pixar, too, lost ground post-acquisition — still, Toy Story 4 is a big hit. But critics have pointed out that The Lion King could have benefited from some of the wit and originality that characterized early Pixar releases. The Marvel empire clearly dwells in its own solar system but nonetheless reminds consumers of the sheer ubiquity of the Disney brand — a ubiquity that could ultimately trigger antagonism, rather than loyalty.
Surely a key obstacle to a harmonious partnership between the two icons would have been philosophical. During my interview with Walt Disney, I took note of his heavy-lidded and rather mournful eyes, which grew dim when social issues were raised. As an old-line Midwesterner, Walt was appalled by the clout of labor unions. He was utterly baffled in 1964 by Barry Goldwater’s inability to gain traction against Lyndon Johnson’s ideas of social justice. Iger could have mentored him on all this and also helped prepare him for the cosmic changes that were overtaking the culture by the late ‘60s, for which Walt Disney was unprepared.
Walt Disney knew change was in the air, and he also sensed that his own time was limited. Even as he lit his endless succession of cigarettes, he had begun to succumb to lung cancer. By year’s end he would be gone, and so would the luminous dreams and visions he so urgently wanted to nurture.
But could he ever have imagined the Disney of 2019? As we were leaving the commissary, Walt Disney paused, a reflective look on his face. “You know the thing about politics is, at the end, none of it is really very interesting. I’ll tell you what’s interesting. Our next Disneyland Christmas parade will set us back $250,000 but it will be the best we’ve ever had — all those giant mushrooms and dolls and men riding little motor scooters inside the figures. That’s interesting.”