Al Michaels deal reunites Disney with original animated character

Updated: February 10, 2006, 4:21 AM ET
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- The deal that allowed Al Michaels to jump from ABC to NBC includes a variety of business transactions -- and one rabbit being pulled out of a hat.

A very old hat.

By granting Michaels his exit papers, The Walt Disney Co., ABC's parent company, will get back a piece of its history from NBC Universal: the first animated character created by Disney and the forerunner to Mickey Mouse.

His name was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and the cheeky bunny was created in 1927 by Disney and his chief creative partner, Ub Iwerks, at the request of Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures.

Michaels had been with ABC for three decades and had been the play-by-play announcer for "Monday Night Football" for the past 20 years.

"Oswald is definitely worth more than a fourth-round draft choice," Michaels said, referring to what the Kansas City Chiefs gave the New York Jets as compensation for releasing coach Herm Edwards from his contract. "I'm going to be a trivia answer someday."

A four-time Emmy Award winner, Michaels agreed last July to stay with ABC/ESPN as the Monday game switched to the cable network next fall, but he asked to back out and instead will broadcast Sunday night NFL games on NBC with John Madden, his partner on ABC during the past four seasons.

As part of the deal, NBC sold ESPN cable rights to Friday coverage of the next four Ryder Cups through 2014, and granted ESPN increased usage of Olympic highlights through 2012 and other NBC properties through 2011. NBC, in turn, gets expanded highlight rights to ABC and ESPN events.

NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said ABC Sports and ESPN president George Bodenheimer called last month to initiate talks, which culminated in an agreement Tuesday.

"He told me this incredible story that Walt's first really big production as a cartoonist for the cinema had been a character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, which was before Mickey," Ebersol said. "And for reasons that aren't still totally clear to me, Walt lost those rights. He didn't have the money to hold onto them."

Before Oswald, Disney and Iwerks had made a series of animated and live-action shorts based on "Alice in Wonderland." The films were distributed by Charles Mintz.

Disney cranked out 26 of the silent Oswald cartoons. The character proved popular and soon began appearing on merchandise.

In 1928, Disney traveled to New York to negotiate a renewal of the contract to produce the Oswald series.

Mintz balked at paying more for the series and instead suggested that Disney fold up shop and come to work for him.

Disney refused. But what he didn't know was that Mintz had secretly hired away most of Disney's key animators -- except Iwerks. Universal owned the rights to Oswald and would continue to create cartoons without Disney.

The result, while devastating to Disney at the time, was historical.

Legend has it that on the train ride back to Los Angeles, Disney decided his next character would be a mouse named Mortimer. His wife, Lillian, suggested he change the name to Mickey.

But according to animation historians and Leslie Iwerks, Ub's granddaughter who wrote a book about him titled "The Hand Behind the Mouse," there's a different story. Iwerks said what most likely happened is that, on their return to Los Angeles, Walt and Ub huddled, considered various options, then settled on a mouse, whose name Lillian Disney indeed suggested.

Iwerks created two silent films featuring Mickey, which, not surprisingly, looked a lot like Oswald with shorter ears. These films didn't make it to theaters then. The third cartoon was made with a soundtrack and marked Mickey's big-screen debut -- "Steamboat Willie."

"It was not just a crucial turning point for Walt Disney, but for popular culture," film critic and historian Leonard Maltin said Thursday.

"If he hadn't been forced to create a new character, who knows what we'd be seeing on all those T-shirts and wrist watches today."

Universal continued to make Oswald films from 1929 to 1938. One of the earliest voices for the character was actor Mickey Rooney.

Oswald also continued to appear in comic books from 1943 to 1962.

In the deal announced Thursday, Disney will get the rights to the Oswald character plus all 26 shorts created by Disney. The deal, which also includes some sports content, does not includes the "Oswald" films and other products produced by Universal. Disney has not said what it will do with the cartoons, but a DVD release is likely.

"When Bob (Disney president and CEO Robert Iger) was named CEO, he told me he wanted to bring Oswald back to Disney, and I appreciate that he is a man of his word," Walt Disney's daughter Diane Disney Miller said in a statement Thursday. "Having Oswald around again is going to be a lot of fun."


AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum in New York contributed to this report.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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