Disney, Universal swap Al Michaels for rabbit

By Kim Christensen
Times Staff Writer

February 10, 2006

In the first known swap of a primo sportscaster for a geriatric cartoon critter, Walt Disney Co. is trading ABC's Al Michaels to NBC for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Oswald who?

It turns out the big-eared bunny was one of Walt Disney's first animated characters, a star in his own right before Mickey Mouse was even a gleam in his creator's eye. But Disney lost the rabbit after he found out that Universal Studios, now part of NBC Universal, owned the rights to develop the character.

Now Oswald will be returning to Disney, it was announced Thursday. In exchange for the rabbit and other concessions, ABC parent Disney agreed to let Michaels, the longtime voice of Monday Night Football, jump to NBC Universal's NBC network, where he will remain teamed with partner John Madden.

Unveiled in 1927, Oswald was the young Disney's best hope for building a franchise before the animator was forced to go back to the drawing board where he dreamed up Mickey.

People familiar with the Michaels-for-Rabbit trade said it was motivated by Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger's desire to preserve Disney's legacy and make nice with Disney's heirs, some of whom had fallen out with Iger's predecessor, Michael Eisner.

"As the forerunner to Mickey Mouse and an important part of Walt Disney's creative legacy, the fun and mischievous Oswald is back where he belongs," Iger, who orchestrated the swap, said Thursday.

Oswald starred in 26 black-and-white cartoons before becoming Universal's property — and forcing the invention of his successor. In 1928, having failed in a bid to persuade Universal executives to let him keep his star rabbit, Disney came up with the gloved, four-fingered mouse that would become not only his signature character, but an also international icon.

The rodent bore a striking resemblance to the rabbit who'd preceded him, but this time around, Disney had locked up all the rights.

But what of Oswald?

Disney archivist Dave Smith said Universal passed the rabbit on to Woody Woodpecker's creator, Walter Lantz, who produced a string of Oswald cartoons in the 1930s and kept him in the public eye until the 1960s as a comic book character. After that, though, it seems the hapless hare was marooned somewhere between obscurity and oblivion. Except for "popping up in some Japanese merchandise" in recent years, Smith said, Oswald all but vanished.

"Universal hasn't done anything with him as far as I know," he said.

Disney has not announced what it plans to do with Oswald, but it's unlikely he will figure significantly in the company's recent $7.4-billion acquisition of Pixar Animation Studios, the pioneer in cutting-edge computer-generated characters.

Still, having Oswald back in the Disney fold is a big deal for some people.

"When Bob 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," Diane Disney Miller, the founder's daughter, said of Iger.

Even Michaels didn't mind being traded for a relative unknown who is 18 years his senior.

"I feel good about it," Michaels said. "I have a lot of friends in that world of freeing all the animals…. Now I can say, 'Hey, what more do you want? I let this guy out of the hoosegow after 55 years.' "