Walt Disney Co.'s top television executive, Richard H. Frank, 52, resigned Friday, ending weeks of speculation and marking another high-level departure at a company that until last year was one of the entertainment industry's most stable.
Within the past year, Disney President Frank G. Wells died in a helicopter crash, Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg left in a bitter feud with Disney Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner and a batch of lower level executives departed as well.
Frank's departure, which had been hotly rumored for the past two weeks, came amid widespread reports of tension between the veteran executive and Eisner.
Replacing Frank, whose formal title was chairman of Walt Disney Television and Telecommunications, is Disney consumer products executive Dennis F. Hightower, who has virtually no experience working in television.
As president of the unit, Hightower, 53, becomes one of the highest-ranking African-American executives in Hollywood. The Harvard-educated executive's most recent position was head of the European and Middle Eastern region for Disney Consumer Products.
Frank's resignation, which occurred 10 years to the day after he joined Disney, followed two weeks of adamant denials by both Frank and the company that he was leaving. Last week, Frank told The Times that he had "no plans of leaving Disney" and that he wanted to kill the rumors.
In an interview Friday night, Frank said he was being "careful with my words" when he said that, and had no specific plans to leave at the time. But he acknowledged that he has been thinking about it for more than a year, in part because he is intrigued by the possibilities of starting a venture based on the convergence of telecommunications, computers, cable television and entertainment.
Last year, Frank organized a major "information superhighway summit" at UCLA. "I thought about doing this the day of the superhighway summit," he said Friday. "I thought about it a lot more the day Frank Wells' helicopter went down. And I thought about it more when Jeffrey left."
Friends and associates of Frank's have said that he was under increasing pressure from Eisner, despite such huge Disney TV successes as "Home Improvement." Asked about tension between the two, Frank noted that he and Eisner have worked together for 19 years and said the tension "was no more or no less than it ever was." In a statement, Eisner called Frank a "consummate professional."
Friends said that Frank's decision was made easier by Disney's climbing stock price. Frank is said to have accumulated large amounts of stock in the company and has rarely cashed in any of his shares as they soared in value over the years.
Details of Frank's departure were hammered out over the past two days, sources said. Frank is expected to stay through the end of April, when his contract expires, to help in a transition.
Frank said he has no specific plans and will take about two months to decide. Sources said he has already received inquiries firms including CBS and DreamWorks, the new entertainment company formed by Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.
The announcement of Frank's resignation came as Disney was hosting a lavish, star-studded preview of its upcoming movie slate at which Eisner spoke briefly.