If one were to put together a composite of the ideal American life, it might look something like this: A young boy grows up in sunny Los Angeles, plays football for the USC Trojans, goes pro, meets the woman of his dreams … who just so happens to be the daughter of the man/myth/legend Walt Disney. They marry and have seven children. He rises through the ranks of The Walt Disney Company, producing films and ultimately becoming CEO. Later, he moves to the bucolic Napa Valley and establishes the renowned Silverado Vineyards Winery.
[Janet Reilly] recently sat down with Ron at the museum as he reflected upon his charmed life, his visionary father-in-law and missing Diane.
Janet Reilly: I know you grew up in Southern California. Tell me a little bit about your family.
Ron Miller: I grew up in Los Angeles. It seems like it was a hundred years ago now! My mom worked at Hoffman’s Chocolates. My dad worked at [Goodyear]. … We lived four blocks from Goodyear, and they had a big hangar out there in an open field. Every Christmas, Santa Claus would come in the Goodyear blimp, land and give all the kids toys. It was a really nice childhood.
JR: Growing up, did you want to play professional football?
RM: Well, I wanted to play football in high school, but the problem was, I also wanted to play American League baseball in the summer. My sophomore year I slid into second base and broke my ankle. That eliminated the whole year of football. The following summer, I slid into second base and broke my wrist. So I really didn’t develop to a point where I was 100 percent until almost the end of my senior year. But we made it into the playoffs and ended up winning the Los Angeles city championship. I caught a few good passes, so it was a good situation for me.
JR: You worked at The Walt Disney Company for 30 years, working your way up to CEO. What was it like to work for one of the world’s most influential companies?
RM: I witnessed some very exciting times. When I joined the company, Walt had only done about three or four live-action films. He had just done 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I was waiting to be drafted [into the Army] and Walt said, “What are you going to do while you’re waiting to be drafted?” I said, “I’ve got a tentative job driving a truck.” And he said, “Well, look, I’ve got this place down in Anaheim that I’m just starting to build, and maybe you can find a little job there somewhere until you get drafted.” And so twice a day I would drive from Burbank to Anaheim, and drop off the plans. I saw them move the orange trees. I saw them develop Rivers of America without water. I was watching something really exciting happen.
JR: Tell me about launching Touchstone Pictures, a less G-rated studio in the Walt Disney Company universe.
RM: 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. One day, Walt called and said “I’ve got a film I’m running tonight, why don’t you come on over?” So Diane and I, we went over there. The film was To Kill a Mockingbird. When it was over Walt said, “Damn, I wish I could make a film like that.” But he couldn’t.
But he would cross that line. So the first thing I did — I think it opened a lot of doors — was name a second label, Touchstone. And before about 500 shareholders of the company at our yearly shareholders’ meeting in Florida, I said, “I have, as you probably know, developed and created a second label. … This is the epitome of what we hope all our second-label films will be like.” And so they watched Splash. Only two people out of 500 felt there were some things that would stop them from telling their friends they should go see it.
JR: So it was a success right off the bat!
RM: Right off the bat. Now we could go after the best directors. We could go after the best writers. We hit quite a few home runs after that.