Riverhead H.S. alum lands top job at Walt Disney Studios

Darknight, batman, Alan Horn, Disney Studios
ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTO/CHRIS PIZZELLO | Alan Horn (from right), actor Michael Caine and director Christopher Nolan in a 2008 ceremony for Mr. Caine in Los Angeles.

1960 was the year childhood friends Alan Horn and Howard Gassert — who both lived in Aquebogue at the time — graduated from Riverhead High School.

Howard was your typical jock; Alan was into baseball, but his main focus was academics.

“I always admired Alan for his self-discipline, and he admired me for my athleticism, but you see how far athletics has gotten me,” Mr. Gassert said with a laugh.

Mr. Gassert owns a nice home on Sandalwood Lane in Riverhead with his wife, Nancy, a former Riverhead school board member, but he’s comparing himself to Alan Horn. Yes, film buffs. The Alan Horn.

For the uninitiated, Mr. Horn went on to become a film industry great, a man named a “Studio Titan” in The Hollywood Reporter’s 2011 “Legends” issue.

So, how did he get there?

Mr. Horn doesn’t delve much into his past during interviews, so his buddy did that for him.

“If someone said, ‘Hey, there’s a party somewhere,’ I’d be halfway out the door and he’d say, ‘Oh, I can’t go, I have to study,’ ” said Mr. Gassert, recalling Mr. Horn as a teenager. “That’s why he is where he is today.”

The co-founder of Castle Rock Entertainment — the successful TV and film production company behind such beloved modern classics as “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Seinfeld” — and a former 12-year president and chief operating officer of Warner Brothers Entertainment, Mr. Horn became the newest chairman of Walt Disney Studios only two months ago.

The move induced a flurry of reports heralding Mr. Horn as the man who would “reinvent” Walt Disney Studios after the epic flop “John Carter” lost the studio $200 million dollars.

But in an interview with the News-Review, Mr. Horn said “shaking things up” isn’t part of his MO as the studio’s newest chairman.

“What I’m trying to do is continue a tradition of quality family entertainment at Disney,” Mr. Horn told the paper last week, adding that he hopes to work both productively and comfortably with people at Disney subsidiaries, including Marvel, Pixar and Dreamworks.

“It’s only been two months, so everything’s still very embryonic,” Mr. Horn said, noting that three big films were already under way when he took over. “[Johnny Depp’s ‘The Lone Ranger’] is almost finished shooting, [James Franco’s ‘Oz: The Great and Powerful’] has finished shooting and [Angelina Jolie’s ‘Malificent’] is well along its shooting, but all three represent exciting projects and the kind of thing I have no problem embracing.

“I like to think I’m already making a contribution to what those projects will become.”

Mr. Gassert said he had a hunch some big movie studio was courting his best friend — who was also his best man and is his daughter Karen’s godfather — when Mr. Horn called to tell him he wouldn’t be in touch for two months because something “top secret” was in the works that had the potential to “change his life dramatically.”

No matter how dramatically Mr. Horn’s life changes, Mr. Gassert said, two things will never change: their friendship and Mr. Horn himself.

“He’s just my best friend,” Mr. Gassert said. “He’d be my best friend if he were digging ditches in Louisiana. He’s the epitome of integrity — what you see is what you get. He’ll never try to B.S. you, he’ll never try to go around your back. He’ll tell you to your face whether he thinks you’re doing a good job or a bad one. He’s just that kind of guy.”

Mr. Gassert said it was Mr. Horn’s no-nonsense qualities that led to famed director Peter Jackson’s demand recently that Mr. Horn oversee the first Hobbit film — a Warner Bros. film still in production — despite the fact that Mr. Horn, who is serving as the film’s producer, was no longer with the studio at the time.

Mr. Horn left Warner Bros. in April 2011, with a consulting agreement through 2013. He was hired by Disney in June.

“At our 50th class reunion in 2010, this girl asked him what he does for a living and he just told her he worked for Warner Bros.,” Mr. Gassert said. “When he left I told her he was the president and COO and her mouth just fell open. That’s just the type of guy he is. He’s really humble. He’s the same guy I knew in high school.”

Alan Horn’s family moved numerous times between Queens and spots on the East End before they finally settled on Main Road in Aquebogue, only houses away from Mr. Gassert.

“My mom told me we moved something like eight times by the time I got to ninth grade,” Mr. Horn said. “While I was at Riverhead High School, I worked at the Henry Perkins Hotel, parking cars and stuff.

Mr. Horn, who drove a black 1952 Chevrolet during his teenage years in Riverhead, said he and his two siblings were just regular kids.

“I had no sense or thought that I would go into the entertainment industry. I went to Union College in Schenectady and thought I’d be an engineer, but I was terrible at that and then I thought I’d be a pilot in the Air Force, but I had an eye issue and couldn’t fly.”

Mr. Horn’s eye issues didn’t prevent him from serving with the Air Force for five years, attaining the rank of captain.

The Air Force, he said, prepared him, in part, for his high-powered career.

“The military gives a lot of responsibility to young officers, which was a great learning and leadership training experience,” he said.

Mr. Horn’s next step was business school. He received an MBA from Harvard.

“He always said he was an admissions mistake,” Mr. Gassert said, laughing.

After graduation, Mr. Horn worked at Proctor and Gamble before landing an interview with Jerry Perenchio, former president and CEO of Univision Spanish-language media and business partner of American TV writer and producer Norman Lear, who brought us “The Jeffersons” and “All in the Family.”

“They hired me,” Mr. Horn said. “I worked with them and off I went.”

He now lives in Bel Air, Calif., as do his parents, who relocated from Riverhead in the early 1980s.

[email protected]

Ryan Horn, Disney Studios, Darknight, Warner Brothers Entertainment
A page out of the 1960 Riverhead High School yearbook.