"He Who Must Not Be Named": Can John Lasseter Ever Return to Disney?
Illustration by Guy Shield

"He Who Must Not Be Named": Can John Lasseter Ever Return to Disney?

As the most powerful man in animation nears the end of a six-month "sabbatical" for personal "missteps," CEO Bob Iger must soon determine his fate. But a close look at the career and workplace behavior of the Pixar mogul reveals a man much darker, angrier and, at times, more abusive than "the happy-ass guy in the Hawaiian shirt," the purported Walt Disney of the digital age. 

The night of the Oscar ceremony March 4 brought another triumphant moment for The Walt Disney Co. when Coco scored two awards, including best animated feature. The win marked the 12th top Oscar in the past 15 years for Pixar Animation Studios or Disney Animation Studios, and with ticket sales of more than $780 million worldwide, Coco was another box-office win, too.

The acceptance speeches included thanks to many people, but one name was conspicuously omitted: John Lasseter, the absent chief creative officer of both pillars of Disney's animation empire. "He who must not be named," marvels one animation veteran who, like many, won't talk about Lasseter on the record. Lasseter, 61, was on what Disney described as a six-month "sabbatical"; in an October memo to staff announcing the leave, he had acknowledged unspecified "missteps." As The Hollywood Reporter first reported then, Lasseter was known by insiders for grabbing, kissing and making comments about physical attributes of women. Multiple sources said Lasseter drank heavily at such company events as premiere parties. Now, with the six months of his leave drawing to a close, many animators are convinced that Lasseter will not return. Disney remains mum, but multiple sources believe that Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger is prepared to bid Lasseter goodbye. "Bob is about keeping peace in the family," says one Disney veteran. "He's not anxious to take on defending somebody with that kind of reputation."

Insiders say Lasseter had amassed so much power that his underlings at one point told Iger they needed to check with Lasseter before carrying out Iger's instructions. Now if Lasseter returns, there is likely to be a negative reaction from some employees at Pixar and Disney who felt that Lasseter had bullied and belittled them and hogged credit for years. Finally, there is the issue of his conduct with female employees. "If John goes back, it will kill women in animation," says a former Pixar insider. "The message will be so clear: Shut up and take it."

Disney does not appear to be preparing to send that message. In February, the company held an unprecedented "day of listening" at the Disney animation unit and brought in a handful of human-resources professionals to facilitate a discussion of workplace concerns. More recently, Pixar employees learned that longtime human resources chief Lori McAdams — seen by many as one of Lasseter's chief protectors — was leaving the company. McAdams did not respond to a request for comment.

Lasseter's departure would be a sad denouement for the burly figure in brightly patterned shirts who is perhaps the most famous living person in the animation world; the man who co-founded Pixar, resuscitated Disney Animation and played a key part in giving the world a series of brilliant, beloved, childhood-defining films that reaped billions in box office. "No single artist since Walt Disney has had as much of an impact on animation as John Lasseter," says Tom Sito, a veteran animator and the former head of USC's Division of Animation and Digital Arts. "John really was the person who guided computer graphics and animation together to create this new medium."

It began with 1995's Toy Story, which was followed by one hit after another: A Bug's Life; Monsters, Inc.; Finding Nemo, to name just a few. After Disney bought Pixar in 2006, Lasseter took on the studio's faltering animation unit, which then cranked out such hits as Frozen, Zootopia and Moana.

But interviews with a broad swath of animators and executives who crossed paths with Lasseter over the years suggest that as he achieved great success and power, he became increasingly imperious. At Pixar, some insiders called him "King John" and various other uncomplimentary nicknames. "He changed drastically as success and money came," says one former colleague. Another longtime Pixar executive says Lasseter's image as a Walt Disney of the digital age — as a whimsical, childlike genius with a wall-to-wall collection of toys and memorabilia in his office ­— concealed a darker reality. "The public didn't see that," this person says. "The happy-ass guy in the Hawaiian shirt? That was a well-crafted persona."

In the early going, the outlook for Toy Story was not good. Based on Lasseter's success with short films at the nascent Pixar, Disney asked him to make the first full-length computer-animated movie. But as the project progressed, some top Disney executives were unimpressed and considered pulling the plug. Then in his 30s, Lasseter "was a pretty humble guy who had a movie that was struggling to find itself," says an executive who worked with him at the time. There was no sign of "these issues that revealed themselves over the years." With $7 million already invested, then-Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg stayed the course. The reward in 1995 was a hit so unexpected ($373.6 million worldwide) that the company was caught flat-footed without Toy Story toys and other merchandise to sell. Lasseter, who had been let go from Disney's animation unit a little more than 10 years earlier, was on his way.

As Toy Story was followed by a dazzling run of hits, former colleagues at Pixar say Lasseter became jealous of potential rivals and intolerant of criticism. "The only person who could give John notes was Steve Jobs," says one, referring to Pixar's majority shareholder in that early era. "There was a level of fear that permeated senior management." Another says Pixar became "this cult of the infallible genius." Lasseter had younger proteges like Pete Docter, who directed Monsters, Inc., and Andrew Stanton, who directed Finding Nemo, but those were talents he had nurtured. With others, says an executive who worked with Lasseter, "You could be 'in' one day but if you did something he didn't like, he could turn and cause a lot of damage." A former Pixar insider says Brad Bird was able to thrive on his 2004 film The Incredibles only because he had been hired by Jobs, who saw to it that Bird was able to assemble and run his own team.

Sources say among those whom Lasseter eventually pushed aside was legendary Disney animator Glen Keane, who drew Ariel in The Little Mermaid and the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. Back in 1983, Keane and Lasseter — then both at Disney — had collaborated on a test combining drawn animation and computer-generated images. ("In five years these tests will seem so primitive, they'll look like Steamboat Willie does today," Lasseter said presciently at the time.) When computers came to dominate the field, associates say that Keane, unlike some who made their names in hand-drawn animation, successfully navigated the transition to the new technology. He left Disney in 2012, and this year won an Oscar for his work with Kobe Bryant on the short Dear Basketball. He's now directing an animated feature for Netflix. Another casualty was Don Hahn, whose producing credits include Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. "He was one of the most successful animation producers of all time," says a Disney veteran. "John treated him like shit." (Keane and Hahn both declined to comment.)

By the mid-2000s, Jobs had become concerned about Lasseter, according to a former high-level associate. The Apple co-founder may not have been comfortable with one man wielding so much power at Pixar, but there was more. Lasseter could be "mean" and "vindictive" while drinking, this person says. "He had ballooned up. Steve was afraid he would have a heart attack." Jobs wanted Lasseter to cut back on drinking and lose weight. "Steve tried," the executive says. "But then Steve got sicker. He wasn't around anymore."

Former Lasseter associates say for many years, Jobs was not the only governor on Lasseter's engines. Joe Ranft was a towering presence both literally and figuratively — brilliant at story and a talented writer, animator and voice actor. He had a great gift for injecting sweetness and humanity into scripts. And according to many contemporaries, he commanded Lasseter's respect. As he had little interest in the limelight, he also did not present a threat.

Ranft had met Lasseter in the late 1970s, when both were students at CalArts, the southern California art school co-founded by Walt Disney. He worked at Pixar starting with Toy Story. "Joe was a gentle giant," says one executive who knew him. "When everyone was freaking out, Joe was the calm one." A former Pixar insider who worked with Ranft says his basic decency operated on those around him: "No one wanted to look bad in front of Joe. [And] Joe could call bullshit on John in a way no one else could. Joe wasn't afraid of John ­— not even 1 percent."

In August 2005, Ranft was a passenger in a car heading to an annual spiritual retreat in Mendocino when the 2004 Honda Element veered off a cliff and rolled 120 feet into 14 feet of water. Several sources who knew both men say when Ranft died tragically at 45, Lasseter lost much more than just a talented colleague. "Joe was his Jiminy Cricket," says a person who was close to Ranft, adding that with his death, "I think John might have lost his moorings." Coinciding as it did with Jobs' cancer battle, the death signaled that the checks on Lasseter were gone.

"I was enjoying my life at Pixar and then Joe died," says another person who fell afoul of Lasseter. "I didn't realize how Joe had been protecting me. It's amazing how one person's life can keep things from going south."

Even before Lasseter's domain expanded to include Disney animation, employees had become wary of his wandering hands. Some say they employed a move they called "the Lasseter" to prevent their boss from putting his hands on their legs. One longtime insider says he saw a woman seated next to Lasseter in a meeting that occurred more than 15 years ago. "She was bent over and [had her arm] across her thigh," he says. "The best I can describe it is as a defensive posture ... John had his hand on her knee, though, moving around." After that encounter, this person asked the woman about what he had seen. "She said it was unfortunate for her to wear a skirt that day and if she didn't have her hand on her own right leg, his hand would have traveled."

In 2010, one former Pixar insider says Lasseter was spoken to — this person assumes by Iger; Disney would not comment — regarding an incident that occurred the night before Up won best animated feature at the Oscars. At a party that evening, Lasseter, who is married, was seen indiscreetly making out with a Disney marketing employee. For a time after that, his behavior was muted; he later told an associate that he had gotten into trouble and as a result was drinking only beer at a company event.

Over time, sources say, there were complaints to human resources at both Pixar and Disney Animation. (Disney declined to comment.) A former insider says the thinking was, "We have to do everything we can to protect John from himself and keep the truth from the public."'

Jorgen Klubien is a controversial figure in animation circles: A strong-willed Dane who can be blunt to a fault, he is seen as talented but difficult. Whether his faults outweigh his artistry or vice versa is a matter of opinion. Klubien met Lasseter in 1978 when Klubien, then 20, was offered a scholarship to the nascent CalArts animation program. At the time, Lasseter was an award-winning senior. (Tim Burton was a junior.) Klubien and Lasseter became friends, traveled to Europe together and met each other's families. Both were hired at Disney and for a time, they shared a house near the studio.

Disney was in a relatively fallow period. The two were put to work on The Fox and the Hound. Lasseter, who by several accounts was not an especially talented draftsman, left the company in 1984. "He wasn't really in love with drawing like a lot of us were," Klubien says. Technology held more appeal. "For him, it was more about 'How can we get to do animation in this medium?' "

For a time, Klubien and Lasseter went their separate ways; Lasseter met Ed Catmull, who invited him to work at a new Bay Area computer graphics unit within Lucasfilm. Ultimately, Steve Jobs bought that unit and it became Pixar, with Catmull and Lasseter in leadership roles.

In 1993 — while Toy Story was still in the works — Klubien was hired to work on Pixar's second movie, A Bug's Life. He was credited for helping develop the story and as a storyboard artist but came away feeling that he had not been credited properly as a writer on the film. Concluding that the way to advance was to pitch his own idea for a movie — as Docter had done with Monsters, Inc. — he asked his lawyer, who also represented Lasseter, how to best go about pitching as a Pixar employee. He says he was advised simply to talk to Lasseter.

Inspired by a Disney short called Susie the Little Blue Coupe, Klubien pitched Lasseter on a movie featuring talking cars. Lasseter liked the idea and told him to start drawing to flesh it out. Klubien says he worked for three months on drawings of settings and characters that appear very similar to those in the finished film. Then he pitched the project to Lasseter again but got no immediate response.

He went to work on Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story 2. But then he heard that Lasseter wanted to move ahead on a cars movie. He checked in with Lasseter, who said he did want to go forward but with a different plot from the one Klubien had proposed. With that, Klubien and Ranft set to work on scripting and illustrating the main beats of the new story and, according to Klubien, created a version that had all the main elements of the finished movie. Klubien went with Lasseter as he pitched the project first to Jobs and then to a top team from Disney, including then-CEO Michael Eisner and Roy Disney. "John was great at pitching the story, mentioning me as one of the inspirations for him wanting to do this," Klubien remembers. After the meeting, Eisner wrote in an email: "This is totally original and wonderful."

Klubien believed Lasseter had promised he could co-direct the film. Instead Lasseter named himself as the sole director. Klubien was told his consolation prize would be a story and co-writing credit, shared with Ranft and Lasseter. But Klubien says that while Lasseter gave notes, he was not involved in the day-to-day writing of the script. In meetings on the project, Klubien says, Lasseter often seemed to echo things that he or Ranft had just said — but the person taking notes included only Lasseter's words, making it appear that Lasseter had originated thoughts he was merely repeating. Klubien adds that he had observed the same tactic during the making of A Bug's Life.

Finally, Lasseter shocked Klubien by taking him off the film altogether. Klubien remained at Pixar, developing other ideas, and says he came up with several, including one called The Spirit of New Orleans that he thinks eventually may have morphed into the 2009 Disney film The Princess and the Frog. In 2003, Klubien was fired from Pixar after 10 years at the company. He says he was told that no one wanted to work with him. After that, he says, he found it difficult to get hired elsewhere, a problem that he thought was compounded because he believed his credits did not reflect all of his work at Pixar.

In the end, Klubien says he got a $50,000 payment for the Cars idea. It did little to diminish his disappointment. "I didn't even get invited to the premiere or to Cars Land when it opened," he says, referring to the 12-acre attraction at Disney's California Adventure Park. "I went with my family to see Cars Land and they had a whole museum of how the film and the Cars Land ride was made. And not a sketch, not a mention of my name in it."

Klubien continues: "I was the creative spark behind this franchise. It's John's genius that he got it going, that he was the master of Pixar. And if he had allowed me to be part of it all, I would've been his biggest champion. But I find it to be an abusive thing that he got rid of me to claim sole inventorship." He says Lasseter used to advise people in plain language to learn to take credit. "The thing for me is, why can't you say what it really was?" Klubien says. "You're great enough in that role. What's wrong with that? I just don't get it."

A number of Pixar veterans say the company never had a welcoming environment for women. A glimpse of that became public in 2011, when Brenda Chapman, who had originated the idea for Brave and was in the middle of directing it, was pushed aside and replaced by Mark Andrews. She had been the first woman director of a Pixar feature and received a shared credit when the film was released in 2012. No other woman has ever received a directing credit on a Pixar movie, and no woman has ever been a member of the famed Pixar "Brain Trust," though some have attended meetings.

(Longtime Pixar producer Darla Anderson, one of the few women in the upper echelons of the company, departed in March. While her exit was presented as amicable, sources say there had been complaints about bullying conduct — though one former associate says Anderson's actions were no worse than behavior that was accepted from men. Anderson declined to comment.)

Though Chapman has remained largely mum on her sidelining, she wrote in a 2012 essay in The New York Times that it was "truly distressing" to be replaced by a man on a film that "came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother." Without addressing Pixar specifically, she continued: "Sometimes women express an idea and are shot down, only to have a man express essentially the same idea and have it broadly embraced. Until there is a sufficient number of women executives in high places, this will continue to happen."

Rashida Jones was hired as a writer on Toy Story 4 but left the project early. Multiple sources say that before Jones exited, Lasseter made an unwanted advance toward her. When THR first reported this Nov. 21, Jones did not deny the incident but said she and her producing partner "did not leave Pixar because of unwanted advances." She then took a shot at the company's culture, adding that "women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice" at Pixar. (A Disney spokesperson says "THR chose to credit only anonymous sources in its original character assassination story [about Lasseter] and then was forced to issue a major factual correction that its entire story hinged on. THR is doing it again based on nothing more than anonymous sources and rumor-mongering." [Editor's Note: No correction was ever issued.]) Another former Pixar insider says she and other women were mostly relegated to supporting roles and expected "to make it seem like the men knew what they were doing." Some women at the company came up with the term "bitchy mommy-wives" to describe the role they were expected to play.

In recent years, this former insider says, it became harder to help Lasseter maintain his image of infallibility, such as when the release date of Pixar's The Good Dinosaur was pushed from November 2013 to May 2014 to November 2015. It was clear that the original approach was troubled, but Lasseter had not reached that conclusion on his own and no one had mustered the nerve to tell him. "He couldn't give notes or fix it," this person says. Ultimately Pixar revised the entire film in a frantic, all-hands rescue effort, scuttling most of the voice talent, including John Lithgow and Neil Patrick Harris. The final product was considered Pixar's first financial disappointment and was shut out of Oscar nominations.

At this point, some insiders believe Iger is quietly preparing to name new heads of Pixar and Disney Animation — those floated include Docter for Pixar and Rich Moore and Jennifer Lee at Disney Animation. But some veterans are angry, saying that the company allowed Lasseter to dominate — and to take credit for the work of others — for too long, only acting in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

"All of his behavior was condoned," says a longtime animator. "It wasn't just the drinking. It was his never having grown up. Some of senior management believed that was part of the secret ingredient when really the secret ingredient was a group of people."

This story first appeared in the April 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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