When the National Conference decided to honor Walt Disney Studios Chairman Joe Roth at its 33rd annual Humanitarian Award dinner Thursday, they picked a winner. For starters, Roth is considered one of Hollywood's good guys.
"He's one of the nicest guys I ever met," said producer Frank Marshall, who would probably feel that way even if he and his wife, Kathleen Kennedy, didn't have a first-look deal at Disney. "He's easygoing, down-to-earth, has time for everybody. You call him and he takes your call--which is unusual."
"He's a truly wonderful man, a real man of his word and a man of honor," said Jim Wiatt, president of the ICM agency. "I think this is a dinner everyone in this room actually wants to be at. I'm happy to be here," he added, "even if I am missing 'Friends.' " (ICM is the packaging agent for the series.)
"Joe is such a terrific human being he really deserves this honor," said Michael Ovitz, Roth's former agent and now Disney boss. "He's an incredible guy to work with."
As a bonus, the human relations organization (formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews) dedicated to fighting bias, bigotry and racism got Michael Eisner and Ovitz in the package. The two Disney chiefs shared duties as dinner chairmen. Disney alone bought eight tables at $5,000 each, which helped to turn the event into the group's most profitable dinner, with a take of $1.3 million.
With Disney's "Home Improvement" star, Tim Allen, acting as a fearlessly irreverent emcee, the Who's Who of Hollywood rainmakers--including Jerry Bruckheimer, Andrew Vajna, Tom Sherak, Jake Bloom, Michael Mann, Bob Daly, and Capital Cities / ABC executives Robert Iger and Jamie Tarses--probably heard enough Eisner / Ovitz jokes to last a lifetime.
Allen even took aim at the religious nature of the event: "We've decided to do a special 'Home Improvement' in which 'Tool Time' will be renamed 'Shul Time.' "
A Natalie Cole mini-concert was followed by a video sendup of Roth that only a studio like Disney could muster, a "special edition" of "Siskel & Ebert" with cameos by Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Mel Gibson, Peter Jennings, Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts, Sharon Stone and Oprah Winfrey.
As for the humble Roth, he reinforced his nice-guy image, going so far as to even thank the orchestra. He also took the opportunity to challenge his fellow makers of movies, television and music not to appeal to "people's basest instincts" with racial and ethnic stereotypes.
"We have an overwhelming effect on people," Roth said. "Please, let's not add to the noise--let's resist temptation."