Hollywood's nicest CEO on the great family dramas of Hollywood — and why he, too, is disturbed by Twitter.
Bob Iger looks down at his phone and frowns.
"Why is the stock market dropping?" he murmurs to himself, sitting in the back of a BMW ferrying him around Disneyland during last month's convention of superfans, where he is showing off the new Disney+ streaming service.
I know I have to give him the bad news.
"You are hereby ordered," I tell him, "to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing your companies home and making your products in the USA."
He looks puzzled. I am here, after all, to interview him about his new memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime, in which he proudly writes about the 40 trips he took to Shanghai in 18 years to complete the labyrinthine negotiations to open the US$6 billion Shanghai Disneyland, 11 times the size of this park.
We are about to go to the Star Wars attraction in Disneyland and take the wheel of the Millennium Falcon ride, which was made partly in China. And many of the costumes being sold in the gift shops at the park are sewn in China.
"President Trump just tweeted that 'our great American companies are hereby ordered' out of China," I explain, reading from my phone. The Disney chief's face darkens in the Happiest Place on Earth, and I see the thought bubble about what he wants to say about the president sending the stock market tumbling with his volatile trade war with China and ordering CEOs about.
But he refrains. The man who guided the Mouse to gobble up so much of Hollywood is nothing if not smooth, sitting in his navy Tom Ford suit, white Tom Ford shirt, black John Lobb shoes and Rolex Daytona.
As one top Hollywood player told me, the most important thing to know is this: "Nobody expected Bob Iger to be Bob Iger."
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It was a long, nasty climb from being a little boy on Long Island watching The Mickey Mouse Club, having a crush on Annette Funicello, to working in a building with Snow White's dwarves on top, shattering a Hollywood record this year when Disney released five US$1 billion movies.
"Look, where else does a lower-middle-class kid with a modest education and not superhuman skills grow up to be me?" Iger asks, sounding a little surprised himself.
After recognising the tech threat early and making three acquisitions that revolutionised the media landscape (Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm) Iger rolled the dice at age 68, on the cusp of retirement, and beat out Comcast with a US$71.3 billion bid for a chunk of 21st Century Fox. And now he is, as one top producer at Disney dryly calls him, "the God King."
In a town where everyone is always filleting everyone else, Iger floats above it all, cosseted in what some call a "a cult of nice." He may own most of the box office, but he is shielded from schadenfreude because the people who would ordinarily begrudge him are happy that someone was able to assail the unassailable Netflix, and rescue the spirit of Old Hollywood from the takeover of the deep-pocketed tech giants.
"Literally, I have never heard one person say a bad thing about him and I have never seen him be mean," David Geffen marveled. "To be honourable, decent, smart, successful and a terrific guy is unusual anywhere. But it is most unusual in the entertainment business. He's in a category of one."
Barry Diller agrees: "Of all the characters here, he's the one with the most courage and the most certainty. He has put as many cards in his hand as he could gather and he's absolutely determined not to turn the world over to Netflix and Amazon. He is in every sense the real deal. And he's grown into it, which is even more impressive."
Iger comes across as effortlessly elegant. He is the sort of person who takes the time to talk to hoi polloi's parents at parties and poses graciously for photos with fans at the park. He seems relaxed with the staff when we stop for cocktails with names like the Jedi Mind Trick at the Star Wars bar.
But his book makes clear how much effort went into his effortless demeanor. By eighth grade, he was working as a stock boy in a hardware store. At 15, he toiled as a janitor for his school district. "Cleaning gum from the bottoms of a thousand desks can build character, or at least a tolerance for monotony," he writes.
At Ithaca College, he earned spending money making pizza every night at Pizza Hut. After he graduated, he became a weatherman in Ithaca and delivered a lot of bad news about the gloomy weather there.
He gave up a dream of being Walter Cronkite and moved to New York City and started at the bottom rung at ABC: US$150 a week for menial labour on game shows, soap operas and newscasts. His friends say he was long underestimated and treated as a glorified errand boy, even when he worked under Michael Eisner at Disney.
In The Ride of a Lifetime Iger recounts how when he started at ABC, in 1974, anchor Harry Reasoner sent him on an errand to check with the producers of the evening news to see if Reasoner needed to make any updates or if he could enjoy a second double extra-dry Beefeaters martini on the rocks with a twist at Hotel des Artistes.
"I ventured into the control room and said, 'Harry sent me to find out how it looks,' " Iger writes. "The producer looked at me with complete disdain. Then he unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, and replied, 'I don't know. You tell me how it looks.' Forty-five years later, I still get angry when I recall that scene."
Iger simply kept moving, as he did after so many slights and wounds, including Eisner's disastrous decision to bring in superagent Michael Ovitz as his No. 2. Even once Ovitz was dispatched with a US$140 million golden parachute for failing, it was an uphill battle for Iger to persuade the board that he should succeed Eisner.
"Part of it was the association with him, I was just tarred by the same brush," Iger says. "And part of it was that, at least to the board — talk about having to subjugate my own ego — it was his company and I was like a second-class citizen."
I remind Iger that I covered the 1997 Disney shareholder meeting where Ovitz got his obscene severance package, and noted in the column that among other failings, Eisner's socks were too short.
"Michael did not care about clothes," Iger says with a smile. "He had good taste in other things, but not clothes or food or wine."
Leggo that ego
In his book Iger tells the story of meeting Jeffrey Katzenberg for breakfast near the Disney lot in Burbank, California, when he was facing headlines like this one in the Orlando Sentinel: "Eisner's Heir Far From Apparent."
"You need to leave," Katzenberg told him. "You're not going to get this job. Your reputation has been tarnished." He was, Katzenberg said, too tied to Eisner messes, including a titanic battle with Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew. "You should go do some pro bono work to rehabilitate your image."
It turned out, though, that Iger had a fierce will under that gentlemanly exterior. Early on, he began getting up at 4am to outwork everyone else and he still does. He sets out his exercise clothes the night before, so he doesn't have to turn on the lights in his closet and thus wake up his wife, Willow Bay, a former Estee Lauder model and broadcaster who is now dean of the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. He leaves out a coffee mug for Bay and warms up some milk for her coffee before he tackles the VersaClimber.
"I never viewed myself as exceptional," Iger says over salmon and a glass of red wine at the Napa Rose restaurant in Disneyland. "And so whenever I got a job, I was relying on hard work more than anything and a level of enthusiasm and optimism. When I went to ABC Sports, everybody there went to Stanford or Dartmouth or Columbia.
"Ithaca College, OK? I didn't have an inferiority complex but I knew I wasn't one of them. I didn't wear Gucci shoes. I didn't wear Brooks Brothers clothes. I couldn't afford any of that stuff, but I knew I had a work ethic that was prodigious. And what happened early on is people started relying on me because they knew if they asked me to get something done, including Roone Arledge" — the ABC executive — "I would get it done.
"So suddenly I realised, well, wait a minute. I may not be special in certain ways. But when it came to getting things done, I was special. And that's actually driven me throughout, you know?"
In the book, Iger writes that his sang-froid when things go wrong may have developed as "a defence mechanism" to the chaos in his house growing up.
His father was a Navy veteran and graduate of Wharton, a trumpet player who worked with some "lesser" big bands before he got into the advertising. But he had dark moods, and Iger later learned his father had been diagnosed with manic depression and had gone through electroshock therapy.
It was a time when mental health issues had more of a stigma and when a neighbor's child told young Bob that his father was going to a shrink, "I had no idea what that was," Iger recalls.
"We never knew which Dad was coming home at night," Iger writes, "and I can distinctly recall sitting in my room on the second floor of our house, knowing by the sound of the way he opened and shut the door and walked up the steps whether it was happy or sad Dad."
Money was tight and torn pants were patched, not immediately replaced. His role, as the oldest son, was to be "a calming influence in the house." His mother and younger sister counted on him for consistency and an even temperament, he says.
His father instilled a love of books and The New York Times and a mania for using his time constructively. Iger is always early for meetings. On a scale of 1 to 10 of obsessiveness, he says, laughing, "I'm a 15."
Iger says that he cried when he gathered up his late father's belongings and realized that they could fit in a little Tupperware box and inside there were mementos of his son's illustrious career, including a gold lighter that Frank Sinatra gave the young Iger in 1974 after ABC televised his live concert at Madison Square Garden.
Iger is self-conscious about his memoir, confiding that "it feels to me a bit like a big ego trip." When he started it, he thought his reign at Disney might be over by the time it came out. But then Rupert Murdoch called, and all that went out the window.
Actually, Iger's book is a primer on how much you can achieve if you keep your ego in check. In an era of brutish and ego-driven leadership in the White House, Silicon Valley and in many other countries around the world, Iger doesn't lead with his ego or try to drive the other alphas out of the herd.
"You have to have an ability to subjugate your own ego," he says. "It serves you well when you're rising and then even when you have risen, there are going to be times when you just have to put that away."
He tells the stories of his four megadeals: how he charmed Steve Jobs, after Jobs had an acrimonious split from Disney in the Eisner era, and bought Pixar to save Disney animation; how he (sometimes with Bay) wooed a wary, reclusive Ike Perlmutter to get Marvel and how he persuaded George Lucas to sell him the Star Wars universe at a lower price than he paid for Pixar.
"Rupert was crazed that we bought Lucas," Iger says, with shy pride. "They were the distributor of all of George's movies, and he was very disappointed in his people. 'Why didn't you think of this?' "
All these deals were propelled by Iger's personal touch. (Tech journalist Kara Swisher christened him the Cashmere Prince.) He often showed up to court these men by himself and tried to be sensitive about what it would mean to have the companies they'd built from nothing swallowed by the Mouse.
He says that when Murdoch called to ask him for a drink at his Bel Air estate overlooking his winery, Moraga Vineyards, he figured that the Fox mogul just wanted to find out if he was running for president, maybe to pass the information to Trump.
"He barely has poured his glass of sauvignon blanc and he asks me the question," Iger recalls. "At that point, I was thinking about it. I didn't really want to tell him. So I was dismissive. I said, 'You know, a lot of people have said I should look at it. My wife hates the idea. Next.' "
Aside from Bay's reluctance, Iger doubted that the Democrats would support a successful business person. "I think the Democratic Party would brand me as just another rich guy who's out of touch with America," he tells me, "who doesn't have any sense for what's good for the plight of the people."
The nastiest place on Earth
I ask how the Murdoch sons, Lachlan and James, affected the Fox deal. Was it like an episode of Succession? As Jim Rutenberg and Jonathan Mahler reported in The New York Times Magazine, Lachlan was furious about it, seeing his future shrinking, and James pushed for it, possibly believing he could snag a top job at Disney.
Iger says he doesn't want to "get into the Shakespearean drama" of it all, but adds carefully: "If you're asking me whether the relationship with the sons and the relationship the sons have with one another and their potential future in the company was ever on the table in negotiation, the answer is yes. But never to a point where it got in the way of us doing what we wanted to do and Rupert doing what he wanted to do."
He says that he got on well with James, even if he was not a fit for Disney, and that James was helpful during the transition.
When Iger did his slap-down of Fox assets for Wall Street, noting that Fox was in worse shape than he had thought, was he implying that Rupert Murdoch had taken advantage of him?
"It wasn't a slap-down," Iger says. "It was an admission that the movies that they had made failed. And I actually gave then a tremendous amount of cover by saying that when companies are bought, processes and decision making can come to a halt.
"There were problems at that studio well before the deal was announced. But the reason I did not believe that it was something we should be concerned about is because it's a short-term problem. And with the talent that we have at our studio, that are now supervising with some of their executives all the movies that they decide to make and how they are made, I'm convinced that the turnaround can happen. It's not a snap your fingers, but it's not 10 years of lost value. It's a year and a half."
He says his tough assessment was not designed to lay the groundwork to write off the purchase price of Fox.
"It's way too early, really, to have to do that," he says. "We don't know anything that would cause us to do that."
His candid critique did not hurt his relationship with the Murdoch patriarch; he says he still goes to the Bel Air winery, and has "a nice relationship" with Murdoch.
The deal has already profoundly affected the way Hollywood works, with filmmakers shaping their pitches to suit the new reality.
A column in Variety suggested that "the unprecedented colossus" is giving people the shakes because Disney doesn't just own all the properties, it owns all the mythologies.
"Look, no one will ever have a monopoly on mythology or storytelling — not us, not anybody," Iger says.
The angst was summed up when James Brooks, a creator of The Simpsons, a Fox show, posted on Twitter an image of Homer Simpson strangling Mickey Mouse.
"I love it when we make fun of ourselves," Iger says. "A little self-inflicted irreverence goes a long way."
Some have wondered if Disney has already strip-mined the foundation of its new empire, stretching its famous franchises too thin.
He agrees that with Star Wars, "I just think that we might've put a little bit too much in the marketplace too fast." But, he adds, "I think the storytelling capabilities of the company are endless because of the talent we have at the company, and the talent we have at the company is better than it's ever been, in part because of the influx of people from Fox."
How can he match the billions that tech companies are pouring into content?
"What Netflix is doing is making content to support a platform," Iger says. "We're making content to tell great stories. It's very different."
Iger believes that, if Jobs had lived, Disney and Apple might have merged.
But it worked out quite differently. After Iger proudly revealed his US$6.99-a-month price point for Disney+, telling me that it would be hard for anyone to compete, Apple announced a streaming service for US$4.99 a month, underpricing Iger, who was on the Apple board. Iger resigned from the board the day of the announcement, acknowledging the conflict of interest.
He thinks that Jobs also could have helped steer Silicon Valley in a better direction. "Steve had quite a conscience," Iger says. "It didn't always manifest itself in his interpersonal relationships, but he had quite a conscience. Silicon Valley needs leaders." The two men became so close that Jobs pulled Iger aside right before the announcement of the $7 billion Disney-Pixar deal to confide that his pancreatic cancer had come back and was now in his liver. Only his wife, Laurene, knew. Iger had to think fast; he rejected Jobs' offer to back out of the deal.
And what about the moment when the Happiest Place on Earth thought about annexing the Nastiest Place on Earth? Iger writes in the book about how he pulled the plug at the last minute on a deal to buy Twitter, thinking it could help Disney modernize its distribution. But he had a feel in his gut it wasn't right, and called a stunned Jack Dorsey to tell him.
"The troubles were greater than I wanted to take on, greater than I thought it was responsible for us to take on," he tells me. "There were Disney brand issues, the whole impact of technology on society. The nastiness is extraordinary. I like looking at my Twitter newsfeed because I want to follow 15, 20 different subjects. Then you turn and look at your notifications and you're immediately saying, why am I doing this? Why do I endure this pain? Like a lot of these platforms, they have the ability to do a lot of good in our world. They also have an ability to do a lot of bad. I didn't want to take that on."
I note that even though Disney has broken gender and race ground with movies like "Captain Marvel" and "Black Panther," the top executives at the four quadrants of the company (TV, film, parks and consumer products, and streaming and international) are all white men.
"You have to look one level down, because we've done a lot," Iger says. He concedes that it's a disappointment that those who directly report to him "are lacking" in diversity and vows, "I'll change that before I leave."
I wonder if there will ever be a female director for Star Wars. He says that Kathleen Kennedy, head of Lucasfilm, is "trying really hard'' to make that happen.
Watching Jobs, who was famously mercurial with employees, and getting older has taught him to be careful how hard he comes down on people who work for him. "I get angry," he says. "I've also tried as I've matured to learn a lot about what matters in the world, you know? Unfortunately, as you age, you lose people, and you think, why did I ever get mad at them for something so small?
"You know, I'm very organised and neat. If I got into the kitchen and Willow's been in, and she leaves a cabinet open, there was a time when I would actually get mad at that. You've got to be kidding. Why would I get mad at something like that? It's pausing for a moment and thinking, does this really matter?"
His equanimity was surely roiled by the crusade of Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, Walt's brother. She has been a frequent critic, calling out the Disney culture and his compensation in interviews and Twitter threads, using her exalted last name, though she is not connected to the company.
"I like Bob Iger,'' she wrote on Twitter, and he has led the company "brilliantly." But she contended that his salary, US$65.6 million, was "insane," and that Disney workers should get a higher wage.
"We're trying really hard to find solutions to the challenges and the problems that our employees are facing today," he says. "We're going to come up with dozens of more solutions that we're going to try to help improve their lives, and if they don't work, we're going to find dozens more. We have to be better."
As obsessive as Iger is about work, he schedules in some fun. He has a sailboat and he has his TGIF movies.
"I try every Friday afternoon to leave work at lunchtime and go to my home and screen a movie," he says. The ceiling of his screening room is a programmable planetarium based on the one at Pixar. Its default setting is modeled on a photograph from Nasa of the night sky in New York on the day Iger was born, a special touch from its designers.
One recent night, when he found himself on his own, he rewatched "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Funnily enough, that is the movie Barbara Walters advised him to watch back when he was single, so that he would be sure to always follow his heart.
He says he has made "zero plans" for what happens in 2021, his new retirement date.
Asked about whether he'd run for president in 2024, when he will be 73, he says, "I don't know that I have it in me."
He has one outstanding offer that intrigues him, though.
"I have relationships with weathermen throughout the company," he says, laughing. "So the promise they've all made me is they're going to give me a weekend at some point in my last year."
Sometimes he'll get in the car with his family and show off his meteorological chops. "I can do the whole weather report for Los Angeles County, Orange County, the Inland Empire, the beaches and the mountains, I can do the whole thing. You know, it's sunny and 63 degrees. Seasonal temperatures here in Los Angeles expected through the rest of the weekend. Winds are mild today out of the northeast at 5 to 10 miles an hour. The barometer is steady at 29, 28, and we're looking at a great — and I mean a great — Memorial Day weekend. All you out there who are going camping or barbecuing or going to the beach, I promise you this is going to be a weekend you're really going to enjoy."
Confirm or deny
Maureen Dowd: You have thoughts on Sean Spicer being on ABC's Dancing With the Stars.
Robert Iger: No. Let's move on.
Steve Jobs used to call you on Saturday mornings when he thought a Disney film was a dud.
Oh, that's true.
You avoid carbs, except pizza, which you try to get anywhere in the world.
You love David Portnoy's pizza reviews.
Jack Dorsey tried to convince you to get into intermittent fasting during the Disney board meeting.
You miss being Bill Simmons' boss.
Licensing content to Netflix was a mistake.
Your biggest position in your personal stock portfolio is a Netflix short.
When you met in Rupert Murdoch's vineyard, you were drinking a great Yellow Tail vintage.
I was drinking a decent sauvignon blanc.
Allen & Co. Sun Valley vests are not as cool as they used to be.
I never wear Allen & Co. Sun Valley vests because I don't wear vests.
You realised you never want to retire when you saw a picture of Lloyd Blankfein wearing dad jeans.
I don't wear dad jeans.
Your first read in the morning is David Geffen's Instagram.
No. Well, I follow him. I will say, in my reading session before I go to work, Instagram is part of it.
You never read DisneyWar.
Euro Disney really took off once you realised that French parents wanted fine wine at the restaurants to get them through the day.
I know it was an issue.
You witnessed the moment Queen Bey met Duchess Meghan.
Written by: Maureen Dowd
Photographs by: Ryan Pfluger
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES