Ron Miller passed away last weekend. The news was surprising because Ron was a guy who always looked great each time Adrienne and I visited Northern California. We also knew how stubborn and fiercely independent Ron could be. Family and friends couldn’t help but be concerned since the lost of his wife, Diane. But Ron didn’t need anybody’s help and was determined to take care of himself. Tough and resilient, Ron Miller was a man’s man. A big guy who could easily block a doorway at the Walt Disney Studio, and I honestly doubt I’ll ever get that image out of my head. Ron Miller didn’t simply enter a room, he filled it.
When I think of Ron I can’t help but think of the many zany cartoons I drew of the Disney CEO. Those of you who know me are well aware I have a habit of mocking my bosses. It’s all good natured, of course. I honestly can’t draw cartoons about people I don’t like. I alway drew Ron Miller wearing a business suit and a football helmet. It was a silly image that always brought a smile to my face. You couldn’t help but admire Ron for being one very lucky guy. What the heck, he married the bosses’ daughter and went from being professional jock to Hollywood movie maker and entertainment CEO. In all fairness, Ron didn’t marry the boss’s daughter because he wasn’t a Disney employee when he began dating Diane Disney. Walt brought Ron into the company because he grew tired of seeing his son in law getting pummeled on the football field. “Come work for me,” said the Old Maestro. “Cartoon making is a lot safer.” Walt always had a way of making an offer you couldn’t refuse. It was a great offer, and Ron soon became a regular sight around the Disney cartoon factory. You couldn’t miss Ron. He was a big guy and ruggedly handsome. Heck! He could have easily been mistaken for a movie star. That’s how good he looked. Initially wary of Walt’s son in law, the young Disney animators kept their distance. However, we soon learned that Ron Miller was the real deal. A likable guy who was easily at home in the board room or the volleyball court. All the girls loved him and all the guys wanted to be him.
Of course, I never said the job was easy. In time, Ron began learning the filmmaking process, and early assignments included assistant directing along with other tasks necessary to produce a motion picture. Walt Disney was teaching his son in law the business from the ground up and Ron proved to be a darn good student. In time, he would be on set directing his father in law in a series of introductions for the Walt Disney television shows. How do I know this, you might ask? I was on Stage Two when Ron had the toughest job in the world. He was giving directions to the man who was his boss and his father in law. A daunting task in anybody’s book. Yet, time zips past quickly when you’re having fun and soon Ron and I faced new challenges. I moved upstairs to work in story and Ron Miller became a full producer. However, in these best of times, the worst can happen. Walt Disney passed away suddenly in late 1966 and the studio was thrown into turmoil because the Old Maestro had not formally chosen a successor. After a series of missteps, Ron Miller finally took over as CEO of Walt Disney Productions. Once again, Ron was given the toughest job in the world.
We can never know the final conversations Ron had with his father in law back in 1966. I suspect Walt was preparing Ron to lead the company forward. If you recall, Hollywood and movies were moving through a turbulent time in the seventies, and Ron, like Walt was determined to lead rather than follow. The film landscape was changing, so Ron launched Touchstone Films in order to appeal to older more sophisticated audiences. While others waited on the sidelines, Ron boldly announced The Disney Channel and a new way to deliver family entertainment to a broader audience. Like his father in law, Ron took the initiative while conservative members of the Disney board were hopelessly calcified wondering, “What would Walt do?” Yet, things would only get worse. Adding insult to injury, Ron was eventually removed as CEO and painfully departed the Disney Studio. He and Diane moved into a new home and a new life in Napa Valley. They created Silverado Vineyards, a delightful winery far and free from the craziness of Hollywood. Gracious as always, Diane Disney Miller and Ron shared that life with Adrienne and myself on a number of occasions. Unlike myself and my colleagues, Adrienne never knew Ron Miller as boss or the Disney CEO. He was just a good friend and we shared fun times together. In time, those marvelous get togethers in Napa and Disneyland included the Miller family.
Yet those marvelous years with Ron at Walt Disney Productions can never be forgotten. I remember watching Ron Miller and his producers playing the Disney animators in a spirited volleyball challenge on the studio back lot. And, I remember Ron sitting with Walt Disney in the 3E screening room trying to explain why a monkey didn’t behave on set. Finally, I remember Ron Miller swiftly rising to his feet when a Disney producer admitted, “He didn’t like football.” Miller glared at him and grumbled, “What’s wrong with you?” It may sound silly, but I can still imagine Ron Miller dressed as a handsome prince in a Disney fairy tale. You gotta admit it’s true. After all, he married the king’s beautiful daughter and they lived happily ever after.