Soon after being named president and chief operating officer of the Walt Disney Co. in January 2000, Robert A. Iger was treated to a celebratory dinner by a friend, Hollywood producer Brian Grazer.
Sitting in Toscana, a restaurant in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, Iger spoke of how thrilled and grateful he was to be picked for a job that had proved treacherous before, in the Eisner era, according to Grazer.
Given the fate that befell the last president, Michael S. Ovitz, whose messy departure in 1996 after just 14 months is still generating bad publicity for Disney, Iger said he was not taking anything for granted.
"He made a choice not to make a lot of noise in the press and to be a loyal No. 2," said Grazer, the producer of films such as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. "He stayed true to his word."
In a business in which loyalty is not always rewarded, staying true to his word paid off yesterday when the Disney board named Iger to succeed Michael D. Eisner, the polarizing chief executive of the company, who has held the position since 1984. Iger will assume the top job though Eisner publicly questioned his suitability in the past.
Now Iger must show independence and his own brand of leadership while undoing any resentment he incurred in carrying out his boss' vision. He will inherit a company that has awakened from a recent slump: Disney's media network division is growing again, courtesy of some recent hits on ABC such as Lost and Desperate Housewives, while Disney's ESPN networks have seen continuing success, although the ABC Family Channel is still struggling. Its movie division has been solid and occasionally spectacular, with films such as Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean. And visitors have been returning to the theme parks.
But the longer-term effects of Eisner's last few years at the company may be harder to overcome. Eisner, a difficult and capricious taskmaster with an eye for the spotlight, feuded widely, driving many of Disney's best creative minds out of the company and stretching to the breaking point profitable relationships with people such as Steven P. Jobs of Pixar and Harvey Weinstein of Miramax. One of the questions will be whether someone so closely associated with the later and more tumultuous years of Eisner's reign will be able to attract, keep and stimulate creative people.
"I don't think he's a bad choice," said Dennis B. McAlpine, the managing director of McAlpine Associates, an independent research firm specializing in media and entertainment companies. "The real job he's going to have is moving from underling to the boss man."
Iger was born in 1951 in Oceanside, N.Y., on Long Island, and attended Ithaca College, where his career dreams included becoming a correspondent for CBS News. But after a brief stint in front of the camera, he joined ABC in 1974 as a studio supervisor.
He later spent 12 years at ABC Sports, working his way up to vice president of programming. And it was at the sports division where he caught the attention of two men who would serve as mentors and father figures before Eisner: Tom Murphy, former chairman of Capital Cities/ABC, and Daniel Burke, the chief executive.
He was promoted to executive vice president of the ABC Network Group in 1988 and the next year became the president of ABC Entertainment. Another promotion came in 1993, when he was named president of the ABC Television Network Group. He added the title of president and chief operating officer of ABC the next year, putting him in a strong position after Disney's acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC in the mid-1990s.
During his tenure, shows such as NYPD Blue and Home Improvement helped ABC increase its profits, performing particularly well among those coveted viewers ages 18 to 49. Although his work overseeing ABC would propel Iger into the president's job at Disney, the network would also prove to be the biggest question mark about whether he would become Eisner's successor.
In 1999 and into 2000, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was a television and cultural phenomenon. Iger was among the Disney executives who decided to ride the show's success as hard as possible, putting it on as often as four times a week. The profits flowed in, but overexposure killed the franchise. Without encouraging shows in the pipeline, ABC soon fell into a swoon, and until recently its losses mounted to $300 million to $400 million a year.
ABC's turnaround this season could not have come at a better time for Iger.
Iger has also overcome the doubts Eisner expressed from time to time about his fitness for the top job.
In proving to Disney cast members, the financial community and his peers that he has the vision and drive to succeed in his new job, Iger is likely to rely on a strong work ethic and an appetite for information.