On February 9th 2019, Disney Legend Ron W. Miller passed away at the age of 85.
If you’re new to Disney fandom and history, the name “Ron Miller” may not ring a bell for you, but he played an important part of keeping the Disney company afloat during a very challenging time.
Two things seemingly unrelated to each other contributed to Ron’s involvement with the Disney Company. First, he married Walt’s daughter Diane. Second, he played professional football.
Ron was drafted in the 1961 NFL Draft and wound up playing quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams for two seasons. In the documentary Walt: The Man Behind the Myth (click on this link to view the documentary), Ron says:
“My father-in-law saw me play in two football games when I was with the Los Angeles Rams. In one of them, I caught a pass and Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane let me have it from the rear. His forearm came across my nose and knocked me unconscious. I woke up in about the third quarter. At the end of the season, Walt came up to me and said, ‘You know, I don’t want to be the father to your children. You’re going to die out there. How about coming to work with me?’”
Walt would groom Ron over the next years to take on the role of producer for Disney productions. The first movie he worked on was Old Yeller. He would work for Disney for the rest of his professional career, beginning as the 6th employee on the original Disneyland team to eventually becoming President of Walt Disney Productions in 1977 and CEO in 1983.
What I find so fascinating about Ron Miller is that he was pushed into the family business, like someone marrying into a family that owned a pizza restaurant or something. He wasn’t someone who dreamed of making movies or cartoons as a kid (as far as we know), and yet he ended up being the top guy of what is now in 2019 the most powerful entertainment company in the world. This is not to take anything away from his achievements – I personally find his role in the company so interesting precisely because of his learn-on-the-job situation. Even though he learned as he went, he developed the ability to let the artists in his company have a lot of free reign do develop their projects.
Ron Miller had a huge role in starting Tim Burton’s career as a director. He managed the company during some its most experimental films, among them Tron, The Black Cauldron, The Rescuers, and The Black Hole. Say what you will about the underwhelming box office performances of most of these films, but you can’t say they were lacking in daring and experimentation. Most of those films freaked me OUT when I was kid, which is an often overlooked aspect of classic Disney films. Have you seen Pinocchio lately? That thing is a horror film!
According to the book Disney War by James B. Stewart, Ron Miller’s tenure was a time of great uncertainty for the Disney company. It was a time when Disney was losing its domination in the animation field and there were multiple attempts by corporate raiders to stage hostile takeovers. If one of those had been successful they could have sold the Disney company off in chunks, and we wouldn’t have theme parks or the Disney animation catalogue we have now. It was not smooth sailing.
By 1984, Ron would be forced out of the Disney Company after one of those attempted takeovers and Michael Eisner would step into the role. Ron Miller would go on to serve as the President of the Board of Directors for the Walt Disney Family Museum.
Check out Disney War for the inside scoop on the end of Ron Miller’s tenure at the top of the Disney Company – it’s an amazing read. Sadly, there don’t seem to be any books devoted to the details of the rest of his career at Disney, which I assume would be a fascinating tale. A man who stepped into the family business, which happened to be running one of the most legendary entertainment companies ever created and keeping it afloat during a difficult time. Thanks to Ron Miller, we have a few more beloved classics in the Disney canon (seriously, Tron rules), and most importantly the imagineers and theme park side of the business remain Disney-managed entities the way Walt designed them, and were never sold off to the highest bidders.
Rest in peace, Ron Miller!