Ron Miller, Former President and CEO of The Walt Disney Co., Dies at 85

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Ron Miller

The son-in-law of Walt Disney, he oversaw the creation of Touchstone Pictures and the Disney Channel, and the studio released edgier films under his watch.

Ron Miller, whose visionary yet turbulent tenure in charge of the legendary Walt Disney Co. that his father-in-law founded led to the creation of Touchstone Pictures, the Disney Channel, the Epcot theme park and a slew of Disney movie classics, has died. He was 85.

Miller died Saturday in Napa, California, the Walt Disney Family Museum announced. He was the president of the board of directors at the museum that was founded in 2009 by his late wife, Diane, Walt Disney's oldest daughter.

As Disney president from 1978-83 and then CEO 1983-84, Miller pushed for more daring and mature films from the studio.

He greenlit the pioneering computer animation movie Tron (1982) and Tim Burton's early short films Vincent (1982) and Frankenweenie (1984), and acquired the rights to Gary K. Wolf's 1981 mystery novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? That eventually became Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).

Under his watch, Miller also produced the Disney classics Freaky Friday (1976), Candleshoe (1977), Pete's Dragon (1977) and The Black Hole (1979). He was executive producer on Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), The Rescuers (1977), The Fox and the Hound (1981) and The Black Cauldron (1985).

Miller also won an Emmy from six nominations for his work on the long-running family series The Wonderful World of Disney and appeared in the Disney family's official 2001 documentary Walt: The Man Behind the Myth.

His 18-month tenure as CEO ended with his resignation after an unsuccessful takeover attempt of the company and criticism from investors and those perturbed by his vision. He was replaced by Michael Eisner and Frank Wells in a decision supported by Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney.

"Few people had Ron's understanding of our history or a deeper appreciation and respect of our company, and he shared it generously with anyone who wanted to know more," Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger said in a statement.

On Twitter, Eisner called Miller "a serious good guy … for my entire career, I have had great respect and fondness for Ron."

"I found Ron to be a very sharp and very compassionate man," Joe Hale, Disney animator and The Black Cauldron producer, said in Walt's People, Vol. 11. "Ron was a very forceful guy. I liked him very much. He was very concerned about the employees. Probably more than Walt was, actually." 

Miller's inspiration to create Touchstone Pictures in 1984 was planted decades earlier when he and Walt watched the 1962 classic To Kill a Mockingbird. “Damn, I wish I could make a film like that,” he remembered Walt saying

"I watched the frustration with Walt, the fact that he had cornered himself by being a G-rated company while all these other companies are making … films dealing with sex and things like that. We had tunnel vision, and we could not break apart from that."

Touchstone's first film was Ron Howard's PG-rated Splash, starring Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks. It made almost $70 million and was the 10th-highest grossing film of 1984.

Ronald William Miller was born in Los Angeles on April 17, 1933. His mother worked at Hoffman's Chocolates and his father at Goodyear. He received a football scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he met Diane on a blind date in 1953. They wed seven months later, and they were married for 56 years until her death in 2013 at age 79. 

After serving in the U.S. Army, Miller played seven games for the NFL's Los Angeles Rams until Walt told him, "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?"

His first job was as second assistant on the 1957 tearjerker Old Yeller. Under his father-in-law's guidance, he gained entry to the DGA and became an assistant director, then an associate producer alongside Mary Poppins screenwriter Bill Walsh.

Walt Disney "had such an imaginative and creative mind. And I saw him through some peaks and some valleys," Miller said of his father-in-law. "There was nothing elitist about him. He was just really a nice guy. And he would come up with these ideas and you would sit there saying, 'Why didn’t I think of that?' Such obvious ideas. He did it all the time."

Shortly before Walt's death in December 1966, Ron and Diane, along with Walt's wife, Lilly, visited him in hospital. "I want you to meet my son," Walt said to the nurse. But she corrected him: "You mean son-in-law." "No, my son," Walt said resolutely.

"It's the greatest thing that's ever been said to me," Miller later revealed.

After leaving Disney in 1984, he and his wife settled in Napa Valley, where they had developed the renowned Silverado Vineyards Winery. 

Survivors include his seven children, Christopher, Joanna, Tamara Diane, Jennifer, Walter Elias, Ronald and Patrick; 13 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Donations may be made to the memorial fund in their name that the Walt Disney Family Museum has established to support ongoing education efforts.