In early December, Disney executives say, he told his board that he was ready to leave. Around that time, a handful of people in Wuhan, China, began developing mysterious coughs.
At the end of January, a few days after Disney was forced to close its Shanghai theme park as the coronavirus spread, Mr. Iger and the board stuck with their plan, agreeing that he would step back to become executive chairman and that the low-profile head of the parks and cruise business, Bob Chapek, would take over immediately as chief executive. They finalized the arrangement even as the stock market began to shudder. And on Feb. 25, they shocked Hollywood with the news that Mr. Iger’s 15-year run had ended.
The seemingly abrupt announcement prompted intense speculation about the reasons for Mr. Iger’s exit. “Sex or health?” one media executive who knows him texted another that night. Two weeks later, a different question emerged: Had Mr. Iger, with his deep ties to China and legendary timing, seen the coronavirus about to devastate his global realm? Did he get out just in time?
In fact, people close to Mr. Iger and the company said in interviews that the real question wasn’t whether he saw the crisis coming — but whether his focus on burnishing his own legacy and assuring a smooth succession left him distracted as the threats to the business grew. No big media company is more dependent on its customers’ social and physical proximity than Disney, with its theme parks and cruise lines. Few have been hit harder by the pandemic.
And now, Mr. Iger has effectively returned to running the company. After a few weeks of letting Mr. Chapek take charge, Mr. Iger smoothly reasserted control, BlueJeans video call by BlueJeans video call. (Disney does not use Zoom for its meetings for security reasons.)
The former C.E.O. thought he was riding into the sunset. Now he’s reasserting control and reimagining Disney as a company with fewer employees and more thermometers.