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Departing Eisner leaves behind legacy, one-page retrospective

LOS ANGELES — When Michael D. Eisner leaves the Walt Disney Co. for good on Friday, there will be no grand send-off or congratulatory party. Eisner, who served as chief executive for more than two decades, has agreed only to a one-page retrospective in the company newsletter, according to Disney executives.

It is a low-key way to end a 21-year career that was both brilliant and controversial and during which Eisner, 63, became the face of Disney for the generation whose parents grew up with the founder, Walt Disney.

In the late 1980s, Eisner was the host of "The Wonderful World of Disney" television show and presided over the company's resurgence in animated musicals like "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King." He is recognized by youngsters at the company's theme parks, and it is common to see children gathered around his 6-foot-3-inch frame, asking for autographs.

Eisner has little to say about his leaving. Through a spokeswoman, he declined last week to discuss his career. Instead he is expected to send an e-mail message to Disney's employees before he vacates his office.

Several Disney executives and others who have talked to Eisner in recent days said it was an awkward time for him. He is leaving a job he loves before he is ready to, they said. Moreover, they added, he is concerned that last year's shareholder revolt, after which he was stripped of his chairman's title, will be given greater weight in assessing his legacy than the gains he made at the company in his early years.

Eisner has yet to disclose his plans. His contract says he can remain a Disney consultant. In an interview earlier this year with Charlie Rose, the public television show host, Eisner said he hoped to remain in entertainment, perhaps producing Broadway shows or making movies. He has an apartment in New York and has long expressed interest in the theater there.

Under Eisner's tenure, Disney grew from a small theme-park operator and movie studio into a sprawling media company. In that time, the company added seven theme parks (for a total of 11), a cruise ship line, a successful stage play division and 10 domestic cable channels — including the highly profitable ESPN — and acquired the ABC broadcast network. Revenues increased to $30.75 billion In 2004, from $1.5 billion in 1984. The stock price has increased 1,646 percent. And the number of employees grew fivefold, to 129,000, from 28,000.

Eisner's recent years, though, were marred by the shareholder revolt and a bitter board fight in which Eisner clashed with two former directors — Roy E. Disney, the nephew of the founder, and Stanley P. Gold, Disney's financial adviser. They had originally lobbied to give him the top job in 1984 during another management shake-up. More recently, they sought to oust him, contending his clashes with employees and Disney's partners were a drag on the company.

"Whatever Michael's faults were, and we all have them, Michael took a moribund company and energized it to a level I'm not sure anyone else could have done," said Richard Nanula, Disney's former chief financial officer, who worked at the company from 1986 to 1998. "He ensured that Disney provided 10 times the level of entertainment available for children prior to him getting there — high-quality, clean, fun entertainment."

Eisner had few interests other than Disney during his tenure. (He does appreciate architecture.) But since Eisner announced his retirement last spring, he has let Robert A. Iger, the Disney president who will succeed him on Saturday, run Disney day to day.

Still, Eisner has not been entirely absent in recent months as Disney's ambassador. Last week, he attended the memorial service for Peter Jennings at Carnegie Hall in New York. On the same trip, he attended an auction of hand-painted Mickey Mouse statues with his wife, Jane. And two weeks ago, he delivered remarks at the opening of the company's newest park, Hong Kong Disneyland, which the company hopes will be a profit center in Asia for years to come.

Thomas O. Staggs, Disney's chief financial officer, noted that while Walt Disney created the original theme parks, they were now populated with characters from "The Lion King," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Mulan," which were developed during Eisner's tenure.

Many in the entertainment business say they believe that Eisner's career is hardly over. Ultimately, friends say, judgments about his success at Disney will be determined by his long-term record, not just the corporate turmoil that has preoccupied the company in the last few years.

"Disney is a major powerhouse," said Bob Daly, a friend of Eisner who for two decades ran Warner Brothers with Terry S. Semel, now chief executive of Yahoo. "But it wasn't a major powerhouse when he started."