NEW YORK — Ron Miller, who rose through the ranks of his father-in-law’s entertainment company, Walt Disney Productions, but whose time as chief executive was tumultuous and ended with his ouster, died Saturday at his home in Napa, California. He was 85.
The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, where he had been board president, said Mr. Miller died of congestive heart failure.
When Mr. Miller became president and chief operating officer of Walt Disney Productions (now The Walt Disney Co.) in 1980, his overriding mission was to reinvigorate its film division, where he had spent most of his career as a producer and executive.
Live-action movies like “Herbie Goes Bananas” and “The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark” were not generating great business, and the studio’s new animated films were not as memorable as its classics like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Pinocchio.”
“We’ve got trouble,” Mr. Miller told The Los Angeles Times a few months after his appointment. “And we’re doing something about it.”
Over four years — as president and, for 18 months, chief executive — he oversaw the creation of Disney Channel, the company’s cable network. He established Touchstone Pictures as a vehicle to release films that were targeted at adults, scoring a quick hit with “Splash” (1984), a romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah.
He also acquired a real estate company that helped Disney develop land near its Disney World complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, and brought the company closer to an agreement to open a Disney theme park in France. (It would open outside Paris in 1992.)
But it was not enough. By May 1984, Mr. Miller was at the center of a corporate crisis.
First, Disney agreed to fend off a hostile takeover attempt by corporate raider Saul Steinberg with an extremely expensive buyback of Steinberg’s stake in the company. That led more than 20 disgruntled shareholders to sue the company for wasting corporate assets. Mr. Miller defended the board’s payment to Steinberg as a way to send him away and keep the company intact.
Then, during the summer, an activist shareholder, Irwin Jacobs, who appeared poised to launch a takeover of his own, helped force Disney to drop its proposed acquisition of Gibson Greetings, the third-ranked company in the greeting card business.
Even as the restive board was evaluating Mr. Miller’s performance in late August, he was trumpeting the synergy he envisioned for its costliest animated film ever, “The Black Cauldron,” marketing it as a theatrical release, a videocassette, a featured Disney Channel movie and a theme-park ride. When the film was released the next year, it flopped.
Mr. Miller did not have much more time to contemplate Disney’s future. In early September, the company’s board asked him to resign.
Before the board members voted, he looked at them and angrily asked: “Don’t you have something to say to me? Aren’t you men?”
According to an account in “DisneyWar” (2005), by James B. Stewart, now a New York Times business columnist, Mr. Miller added: “I’ve given my life to this company. I’ve never worked anywhere else. I think I’ve taken great strides in leading it as far as it has come. I feel like this is a betrayal.”
He was replaced as chief executive by Michael D. Eisner, whom Mr. Miller had earlier tried to recruit to Disney.
“For my entire career, I have had great respect and fondness for Ron,” Eisner wrote on Twitter on Sunday. Eisner stepped down in 2005.
Ronald William Miller was born April 17, 1933, in Los Angeles. His mother, Stella (Bennett) Miller, worked for a candy-maker; his father, John, was a tire builder at Goodyear Tire and Rubber.
Ron played baseball and football in high school and received a scholarship to play football at the University of Southern California, where he was a receiver for three years. He did not graduate.
While at USC he met Diane Disney, Walt Disney’s older daughter, on a blind date. They married in 1954, around the time construction was starting on Disneyland, in Anaheim, California; Mr. Miller’s first job for Walt Disney was chauffeuring architectural plans between Disney offices in Burbank and the construction site. After serving in the Army, he played for the Los Angeles Rams in the 1956 football season, catching 11 passes for 129 yards.
Walt Disney watched Mr. Miller play two games that season but was concerned that his son-in-law might be grievously hurt — he saw him knocked unconscious on one play — and asked him to come work for him.
“You know, I don’t want to be the father to your children,” Disney said, as Mr. Miller recalled in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 1984. “You’re going to die out there.”
Mr. Miller’s first job was with the crew of the film “Old Yeller” (1957). He went on to spend more than 20 years as a producer or executive producer of Disney movies like “That Darn Cat!” (1965), “Escape to Witch Mountain” (1975), “The Shaggy D.A.” (1976) and “Freaky Friday” (1977).
After his ouster, he and his wife moved to Northern California, where he ran Silverado Vineyards and where she conceived and opened the Disney Family Museum. She died in 2013.
Mr. Miller’s survivors include his daughters, Joanna Miller, Tamara Diane Miller and Jennifer Goff; his sons, Christopher, Walter, Ronald and Patrick Miller; 13 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.