The Genie is back in the bottle. The yearlong feud between actor Robin Williams and the Walt Disney Co. is over.
Williams, who last autumn accused Disney of lying to him and breaching an agreement not to use his voice to merchandise products inspired by the hit animated film “Aladdin,” has received an apology from newly installed studio chief Joe Roth. Both sides say they will now discuss movie projects, although no official deal yet exists.
In remarks as stunning as they were contrite--especially coming from a studio chief--Roth admitted that Disney had exploited Williams without his permission.
“Robin complained that we took advantage of his performance as the Genie in the film, exploiting him to promote some other businesses inside the company,” Roth told The Times. “We had a specific understanding with Robin that we wouldn’t do that. (Nevertheless) we did that. We apologize for it.”
Furthermore, Roth said, “Disney may have been responsible” for the media’s portraying the dispute as a ploy by the actor to get more money for his role as the wisecracking Genie in the 1992 film. At the time, sources close to the dispute had characterized Williams’ comments as “sour grapes” because he received scale pay of $75,000 for a film that grossed more than $200 million domestically.
“There is no question in my mind that we need to apologize (to Williams) . . . for not defusing the issue in the media that (his motive) appeared to be about money,” Roth said. “I’ve known Robin for years and know that none of these issues are ever about money. They are simply about principle.”
Accepting the olive branch, Williams called Roth’s apology “a decent thing” and added: “It’s like a country re-establishing diplomatic relations.
“It’s a good feeling because I’ve done good things there,” the actor-comedian said. Those include “Good Morning, Vietnam” in 1987 and “Dead Poets Society” in 1989.
“I wasn’t trying to shake anybody down,” Williams said in a telephone interview. He said hawking merchandise “is one thing I don’t do,” noting that he has felt that way since his days on television, joking that it probably began when he first saw “Mork and Mindy” dolls “dismembered in trash cans.”
The dispute with Disney came to a boil last November, when Williams went on “The Today Show” to publicize his film “Mrs. Doubtfire,” which had been greenlighted by Roth when he was head of 20th Century Fox studios.
Pulling on an imaginary nose a la Pinocchio, Williams did little to disguise his anger at Disney, telling an interviewer: “You realize when you work for Disney why the mouse has only four fingers--because he can’t pick up a check.” He made a similar comment in New York magazine.
Disney later sent him a Picasso painting as a way of thanking him for his work.
Williams has said all along that he played the Genie as simply as “a favor.” He noted that what started out as one day’s work “ended up to be weeks. It was 27 hours’ worth of stuff.”
“I love animation, and Disney is the Rolls-Royce of animation,” he said. “But I told them, ‘Don’t use my voice to sell merchandise,’ and they agreed to that.” When Disney went ahead and used his voice in their marketing, Williams said, he felt “it was like a violation of a trust.”
The apology is remarkable for the Disney studios, which have been rocked by a change of leadership in recent weeks. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who gambled and lost in his attempt to become the No. 2 man in Disney’s corporate adminstration, was replaced by Roth in September. Katzenberg has since gone off to create his own studio with director Steven Spielberg and record mogul David Geffen.
Roth said one of his first tasks after assuming command was to put out peace feelers to Williams, through his agent, business manager and attorney. “As soon as I got the job, I called up people in his camp . . . and said ‘I’d like to get back into the Robin Williams business.’ I kind of left Fox a little early for ‘Mrs. Doubtfire.’ ”
But Roth stressed that his overture to Williams was in no way meant as a signal that he was heaping blame on Katzenberg.
“This is not a Jeffrey or a non-Jeffrey issue whatsoever,” Roth said. “This is something that happened inside a very large organization through its merchandising and all of its tentacles that went out with what they thought was the best way to sell a picture.”
Williams also declined to heap blame on Katzenberg, saying the problem was caused by Disney’s monster marketing machine. “I wouldn’t want to take a whack at Jeffrey,” he said. “It’s a company thing. Something went wrong.”
Yet it seemed clear by Roth’s willingness to make amends that the studio chief is sending a signal to the creative community that Disney will be a talent-friendly place under his tenure.
One earmark of the Katzenberg years was the way the studio would consistently create box-office stars but then see the actors work for other studios because Disney simply refused to cave in to agents’ contract demands.
Roth said that although there exists no official deal between Disney and Williams, “there is an understanding.” He said one of the scripts he will show Williams is called “Jack.” It’s a story about a 40-year-old who is in fact a 10-year-old who has a disease that makes him age four years for every year of his life. It will be produced by Ricardo Mestres, former head of Hollywood Pictures.
The studio chief also said he will entertain any ideas Williams has for film projects, including animated movies.
As for Williams, he’s just glad to be on speaking terms again with Disney.
“Just when people are getting burned right and left (in Hollywood), look, an act of kindness!”