Ill Eisner is shock to Disney

July 18, 1994|By New York Times News Service

HOLLYWOOD -- The announcement late Saturday that Michael Eisner, the chairman of Walt Disney Co., had undergone emergency quadruple heart bypass surgery stunned Hollywood and the financial community, and raised immediate questions about the management of one of the world's most successful -- and, up to now, stable -- entertainment companies.

Mr. Eisner, 52, underwent the three-hour surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles earlier Saturday.

His surgeon, Dr. Alfredo Trento, said, "The operation was a normal bypass procedure without any complications."

Dr. Trento said he expected Mr. Eisner to leave the hospital in several days. Disney officials said Mr. Eisner was expected to return to work in several weeks.

Mr. Eisner's illness came at an especially troubled time in terms of the company's management, lawyers, financial experts and rival studio executives said Sunday morning.

The death of Frank Wells, the president of the company and Mr. Eisner's closest associate, in a helicopter crash on April 3, left a major void that has not been filled.

Studio executives said that Mr. Eisner had especially felt the loss of Mr. Wells in recent weeks as he confronted decisions alone about whether to enter negotiations to buy -- or have a partnership with -- CBS Inc.

Adding to the stressful mood at Disney, the company has been locked in a highly public conflict with some prominent historians over plans to develop a park, called Disney America, on a 3,000-acre Civil War site in Prince William County, Va. The plan has stirred controversy in Virginia and Washington. Such matters were the domain of Mr. Wells.

What complicates the situation for Mr. Eisner, executives said, is that his heart surgery places serious pressure on him now to fill the No. 2 job and even groom a successor.

One leading candidate is Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chairman of the studios. But Mr. Eisner has clearly been reluctant to appoint Mr. Katzenberg to the No. 2 job. And if Mr. Katzenberg is bypassed, executives say, he will probably leave the studio, which would stir turmoil not only in Disney's successful film division but across the industry.

The news about Mr. Eisner also shocked the entertainment community. The multimillioniare executive had seemed, more than any other in Hollywood, singularly identified with a studio whose revenues had climbed from $1.45 billion in 1984, when Mr. Eisner took over the somnolent company, to $8.5 billion last year.

For the most part, the company's theme parks and resorts, film division, consumer products, home video and television production have mushroomed during the last decade under Eisner.

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