Frank G. Wells, the president and chief operating officer of the Walt Disney Co. and a key part of one of the biggest turnarounds in American corporate history, was killed in a helicopter crash Sunday during a skiing expedition in the rugged Ruby Mountains in northeast Nevada.
Wells, 62, and four others were aboard the helicopter when it went down in a remote mountainside known as Thorpe Creek Canyon, about five miles south of Lamoille, members of the search party said.
The pilot, Dave Walton, and Beverly Johnson, of Los Angeles and Wyoming, also died in the crash. Johnson's husband, Mike Hoover, was injured. He and their ski guide were taken to a hospital, Elko County Sheriff Neil Harris said. The injured were in critical condition.
Johnson and Hoover are award-winning documentary filmmakers, sources said. They had filmed the guerrilla war in Afghanistan and their work appeared often on CBS News. Both were avid climbers and made several films about the expeditions. Hoover's short documentary, "Up," won an Academy Award in 1984.
The group had been heli-skiing in mountains where expert skiers travel for powdery slopes untouched by other skiers, officials said. Wells, at 6 feet 4 inches, was an accomplished mountaineer who had climbed the highest peak on every continent, and had reached the summit of each one--except Mt. Everest.
Wells had gone to Lamoille with his son Kevin for an Easter ski vacation, said a representative of Ruby Mountain Heli-Ski, the helicopter company, but his son was not aboard the copter when it crashed about 4:30 p.m. local time.
Actor-director Clint Eastwood was on the weekend trip as well, but he had left to return to his Carmel home an hour before the crash that claimed the life of Wells, who was his good friend and former attorney, said Eastwood's agent, Leonard Hirshan of the William Morris agency.
The death of Wells was expected to send shock waves through an industry where management stability is rare. Wells and Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner had become the model of such stability: their 10-year reign is a rarity in a business with high and frequent executive turnover. "There are no words to express my shock and sense of loss," Eisner said in a statement late Sunday night. "Frank Wells has been the purest definition of a 'life force' I have ever known.
"His wisdom, his charm, his zest for experience and challenge . . . his naked and awesome intelligence . . . set him apart and beyond. The world has lost a great human being."
Wells, a California native, Rhodes scholar and former entertainment lawyer, was often overshadowed by the high-profile Eisner, but nonetheless was considered critical to Disney's turnaround that started when the two were named in 1984 after a struggle for Disney that threatened to break up the venerable Burbank company.
Even before the revival of Disney's fortunes--the company's market value leaped from $2 billion to $22 billion between 1984 and late 1992--Wells had a long history in the movie industry, including more than a decade at Warner Bros., where he began in 1966 as a vice president. He served as vice president and chairman of that company before he left in 1984 to join Disney.
The partnership served both Wells and Disney well. In 1990, Wells was the highest-salaried Californian, with total compensation from salary bonus and stock options of nearly $51 million.
Wells was also known as a bold mountain climber, who in 1981 set himself the goal of climbing the highest mountain on each of the globe's seven continents. He took a leave from Warner Bros. to co-author a book about the experience, "Seven Summits."
As an undergraduate at Pomona College, which he attended with Roy Disney, Walt Disney's nephew, he had fantasized about being the first to conquer Everest--until a fraternity brother told him one day in 1953, "Well, we blew it. Some guy named Hillary just climbed it."
As a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, he and a friend bought a private plane over one spring vacation to fly to South Africa and back. They only got as far as a crash-landing in East Africa.
For all his button-down resume, Wells had an adventuresome spirit. The son of a Navy officer who spent much of his childhood living on Navy bases, he played championship high school football in Coronado, and in college played basketball and water polo.
A Stanford University law school graduate, Wells had been a partner in the Hollywood law firm of Gang, Tyre & Brown, which specializes in entertainment industry law.
In recent years, Wells had also earned a reputation as a behind-the-scenes mover in the effort to enact forestry protection legislation in Northern California, backing a legislative effort that he termed "critical."
Wells' stewardship at Disney began in 1984. In a coup eventually led by Wells' former classmate, Roy Disney, the company's regime was ousted, and Eisner and Wells were brought in to salvage the operation.
They, along with other executives, turned the complacent company around, making the theme parks more profitable and turning out such popular films as "Pretty Woman," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin."
Until last year, when EuroDisney suffered losses, the Eisner-Wells partnership had been pure gold.
The politically active Wells was one of the key business executives who stepped forward to support President Clinton during the 1992 campaign when Clinton was looking for backing from business leaders for his economic plan.
In Sunday's accident, according to local authorities, the control tower at J. C. Harris Field in Elko, 20 miles from the crash site, received a report at about 4 p.m. that a helicopter belonging to Ruby Mountain Heli-Ski was having engine trouble.
Search and rescue crews immediately mobilized at Lamoille, at the base of the mountain range, which is in Humboldt National Forest. They reached the site of the crash shortly afterward in helicopters.
"The pilot did the best he could when the engine quit," Hoover told rescuers, according to Ted McBride, who piloted the rescue craft.
The two survivors were transported to Elko General Hospital, where they were listed in critical condition. They were flown to Washoe County Medical Center in Reno.
The survivors were Johnson's husband and Paul Scannell.
Johnson and Hoover claimed addresses in both Kelly, Wyo., and Los Angeles, Harris said. Scannell was the ski guide for Ruby Mountain Heli-Ski.
Ruby Mountain Heli-Ski has operated in the area for more than 10 years, transporting skiers to various landing pads in the mountains above Lamoille.
A woman who answered the telephone Sunday evening at the company's office in Lamoille refused to comment on the accident.
Wells' party, which included Eastwood and other Disney executives, according to sources, had spent two nights in a guest house at Red's Ranch in Lamoille, a spokesman for the ranch said.
Harris said that after Wells and other skiers were dropped off above the slopes Sunday afternoon, snow and squalls had developed in the upper reaches of the mountains. "The weather got bad, so they (the ski company's helicopters) came back to take them off the mountain," the sheriff said.
The first helicopter made it back safely but the one carrying Wells and other members of his party reportedly developed engine trouble.
Harris said rescuers had no difficulty pinpointing the location of the downed helicopter, which was in an area inaccessible to hikers or snow vehicles
"We had to helicopter in," he said. "It's a remote area."
Eisner, in his statement Sunday night, said he and Disney employees and shareholders "extend out deepest condolences to Luanne, his wife, to Kevin and Bryant, his two sons, to Betty, his mother and the rest of his wonderful family."
Times staff writer Miguel Bustillo and correspondent Lin Anderson contributed to this story.
* 'A BRILLIANT EXECUTIVE': Frank Wells is remembered for role in Disney turnaround. D1