Interviews

The Interview With Ron Miller: Life in the Magic Kingdom

By Janet Reilly

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.

This is the story of Ron Miller. 

Photo by Spencer Brown

Now 85 years old, Miller lives a quiet life in Napa, where he takes pride in his garden and his grapes. His beloved wife, Diane, died in 2013, four years after founding The Walt Disney Family Museum, a tribute to her late father. The acclaimed museum in The Presidio tells the story of Walt’s life, exhibits rare artwork by Disney animators, and will soon celebrate Mickey Mouse’s 90th birthday. 

I recently sat down with Ron at the museum as he reflected upon his charmed life, his visionary father-in-law and missing Diane. 

I know you grew up in Southern California. Tell me a little bit about your family. 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.

Growing up, did you want to play professional football? 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.

So, even with a limited high school football career, you still got recruited in college… Yes. I had a wonderful coach, Harry Ellison, who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. Harry was part of a recruiting team, and asked me one day where I wanted to go to college. I said “USC.” So as I’m standing in front of him, he called a recruiter at USC and says, “I’ve got a kid here that you’ve met on a recruiting trip and he wants to go to your school — Ron Miller. [Pause.] RON. MILLER. M-I-L-L-E-R.” And he carried on a conversation for a while and said, “Look, I want you to give him a scholarship. You don’t have any more scholarships left? Oh, oh. Well, that’s too bad.” So he talked a few more minutes and said, “Look, let’s cut out all this crap. Ron Miller wants to go to SC and if you’re not going to give him a scholarship, in five minutes I’m gonna make a call to UCLA. He’s going to UCLA and someday he’s going to beat your ass.” And that was it. They gave me a scholarship to SC.

What did you learn from football that you used later in your professional career? I think the most valuable thing I learned was that you have to have help in every endeavor. You’re not going to do it alone. You’re going to do it as a group. That’s what I learned from football. Football was a team sport. And I carried that on to the studio. Just like Walt. When Walt was on a project, he didn’t do it alone. He did it with a lot of people. The difference between Walt and me is he contributed a hell of a lot. I don’t know if I contributed anything like that.

While at USC, you met Diane Disney, your future wife. How did you two meet? I played left end and my best friend played right end for the Trojans. He had a girlfriend who lived off campus. His girlfriend’s roommate was Diane. So they put their two minds together and said, “After the game [at Berkeley], why don’t we get a blind date arranged?” So I bought off on it. We played the game and I had a pretty good game. But I was tired. Afterward went to some dive. I took a shot of bourbon thinking I’m going to get in the mood. Nothing happened, and I was about to go to sleep. I looked over at Diane and Diane was looking at her friend and she was going like this [makes a square sign]. And I saw it. So I thought, “I gotta get out of here.”

I said I was going to the bathroom and I never came back. I went to the hotel, jumped in bed and went right to sleep. The next morning, we all went back to LA on the train. And there was Diane. I went up and I apologized. She accepted the apology. We drank beer on the train. … Our first date was October 6 of 1953. We married May 9 of 1954.

What was it like asking Walt Disney for his daughter’s hand in marriage? Well, indirectly, I think Walt kind of asked me. It’s a cute scenario. One day I drove to their house, said hello to Walt and [his wife] Lilly, grabbed Diane, got in the car and started driving. Diane, typical Diane, says, “Huh.” I said, “What does huh mean?” “Guess what dad said to me tonight just before you got here.” I said, “No, I’m not going to guess. What did he say?” “He said, ‘Well, Lilly and I have been talking, and the first couple guys you brought home we didn’t like. But you know, Ron, he seems like a good kid. He seems like somebody you might consider marrying.’” She tells me this in the car. She was really proposing to me.

What was it like having Walt Disney as a father-in-law? He had such an imaginative and creative mind. And I saw him through some peaks and some valleys. I marveled at the meetings that we had with him. … He was a very calm person. He was from the Midwest. 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. 

I had always been shy, and when I first started becoming involved in creative meetings, I laid back. I had good thoughts, but I let somebody else eventually come up with the idea. But Walt wasn’t afraid to throw out any idea. He threw out everything. I realized you can’t prove to others you’ve got a certain talent unless you let them know you’ve got a talent, that you’re making a contribution. … Walt was surrounded by creative people. … He appreciated the talent around him and he often said his greatest ability was probably recognizing creative talent.

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? 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.

Ron Miller in his younger days as a producer at Walt Disney Productions, where he worked for 30 years. He worked his way up as president and CEO, and produced such films as Tron, Pete’s Dragon and The Black Cauldron.

What did you do after the Army? I played with the Los Angeles Rams. After the season, Walt said to me, “What are you going to do next year?” I said, “They’ve asked me to come back.” At that time, Diane and I had two children. And Walt said, “You know, I think that you really should consider the fact that I am not going to father two children if you get your butt killed out there on the gridiron.” So he said, “I’d like to offer you a job.” He got me into the Directors’ Guild. And then I became an assistant director, which sets all the background action and all that. Then I became a first assistant director. And then Walt made me associate producer. I co-produced for Walt with Bill Walsh, one of the best talents that Hollywood has ever seen. He wrote Mary Poppins. He wrote Love Bug. He just was so creative.

Tell me about launching Touchstone Pictures, a less G-rated studio in the Walt Disney Company universe. 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.

So it was a success right off the bat!  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.

You left Disney in 1984 and you and Diane moved to Napa. Why Napa? Walt and Lilly had a second home in Palm Springs. And when Walt died, the magic of Palm Springs sort of went with him. And so Lilly sold the house. Diane felt that her mother should buy somewhere other than Beverly Hills. Diane had never been to Napa, but she took her mom on a trip up there. And all they had to do was drive into the valley and Diane fell in love with it. They had a real estate broker and the real estate broker said, “There is a house coming on the market, it’s owned by Harry See of See’s Candy, and it’s a beautiful home. Very ranch-y and all that.” 

Diane brought me up there once and I fell in love with it. And so we bought 70 acres of vineyard with a house that goes back to 1906. We tore most of the vineyards out and planted all Cabernet. And then, on the hill, we decided, “Okay, let’s throw a little winery there.” Well, it’s not a little winery any longer. 

In 2009, you opened The Walt Disney Family Museum here in the Presidio — it was the brainchild of Diane, I understand.  Most definitely.  A reporter once asked Diane, “Why did you pick San Francisco for the museum?” And Diane said, “I know it seems like it should have been LA. But I want to be part of it and in very close proximity to it. And I live here. And that’s why it’s here.” 

Why was this museum important to her? There had been a number of things written about Walt that just were not true. And she wanted to tell his story.

Ron and his late wife, Diane Disney, with whom he founded The Walt Disney Family Museum in 2009. “I have lived a wonderful life,” he says.

And, is the museum all she had hoped for?
Before the museum opened, we had a walk-through. And Diane said, “I thought we would build a good museum, but this is a lot better than just good. This is magnificent.” And it is. People go in there. They’re energized. They’re taken by the success story of a young kid who at a very young age got on the train in Kansas City with his soda pops and everything else, rode the train to Jefferson City selling his merchandise. He was about 12 or 13 years old at the time. I mean, he worked all his life.

What is the future of the museum? I know thousands of kids visit the museum every year and education is an important component of what you do here. It’s been a big part of what we do here. The museum is not going to grow as a museum. We’re going to change objects periodically and all that, but we’re not going to change Walt’s story. The future of the museum is education. And, someday, if something becomes available in The Presidio that gives us an opportunity to open an educational wing, I think we’ll do it.

You’re extremely active.  Do you have a credo that you live by? No. I’m 85. It wasn’t until — and I’m serious about this — about a year ago that I suddenly realized I’m only five years short of 90. Ninety sounds pretty damn old. My body is worn out and everything else, but I’m still enjoying life. 

Last question: Who’s your favorite Disney character? Oh, God. It has to be Mickey.

THE LIGHTNING ROUND

My biggest regret … I never played [football] my senior year at USC.

I’m happiest when … I’m in my garden. 

The biggest risk I’ve ever taken … Becoming CEO of [The Walt Disney Company].  

If I had a magic wand, I would … Have my wife next to me. … Five years of living alone, it’s tough.

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