Ron Miller, the football-player-turned-Hollywood-executive who once ran what was then called Walt Disney Productions, has died at the age of 85.

The death of Walt Disney’s son-in-law, husband to the late Diane Disney Miller, was announced Sunday by the Walt Disney Family Museum. He had served as the museum’s board president since its founding in 2009.

Introduced to Diane Disney on a blind date when he was a football player at the University of Southern California, Miller went on to the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams after a stint in the Army before Walt Disney convinced him to work for his studio. Miller worked on projects like Disneyland and 1957’s “Old Yeller,” with his later career including producer credits on films like “Pete’s Dragon and “The Black Hole.”

Miller’s close relationship with his father-in-law can be illustrated by a conversation shortly before Walt Disney’s death in 1966, where Walt called Miller his “son” to a nurse.

“It’s the greatest thing that’s ever been said to me,” Miller later said.

Miller rose to become Disney’s president in 1978, a tenure which led to lasting changes to the company like the creation of Touchstone Pictures (in order to release more adult-oriented movies without tarnishing Disney’s family-friendly brand), the Disney Channel and Epcot at Walt Disney World. He also acquired a real estate company to begin developing the company’s tens of thousands of acres of undeveloped land around Disney World. 

He became CEO in 1983, but his tenure was short-lived. The company, then languishing in last place among the Hollywood studios, became a target of corporate raiders. Walt’s nephew, Roy E. Disney, backed a campaign to install new management at the company, leading to Ron being replaced as the company’s chief by Michael Eisner in 1984.

According to the 1987 book “Storming the Magic Kingdom,” Miller did not feel he deserved to be ousted from the company his father-in-law had built.

“I’m very disappointed in this,” he told board members before they voted on removing him as CEO. “I’ve given my life to this company. I’ve never worked anywhere else. And I’ve made progress with this company. I think I’ve taken great strides in leading it as far as it has come. I feel like this is a betrayal.”

Miller’s successors as head of the Walt Disney Company remarked on his life and death Sunday. Eisner tweeted that Miller was a “serious good guy. For my entire career, I have had great respect and fondness for Ron.”

Current Disney CEO and chairman Bob Iger said Miller’s “life and legacy are inextricably linked with our Company and the Disney family because he was such a vital part of both.”

“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,” Iger said in a statement.

After his departure with Disney, Miller spent much of their time in California’s Napa Valley, where they had opened the Silverado Vineyards winery. His survivors include seven children, 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Photo credit: Walt Disney Family Museum

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