Disney: ‘Why do we need a cast made up of only women or Blacks?’: How Nelson Peltz, Beckham’s father-in-law, is trying to change the company

The billionaire businessman, investor and Trump supporter owns a significant part of Disney’s shares, and he wants to end the company’s ‘woke drift.’ So far, Peltz has failed, but he has secured the support of Elon Musk

Nelson Peltz
Nelson Peltz during a lecture in New York City, in 2015.CNBC (NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via)
Miquel Echarri

In March of 2022, when the actress and model Nicola Peltz married Brooklyn Beckham in Palm Beach, Florida, part of the media attention focused on Nelson Peltz, the bride’s 81-year-old father. At the time, the New Yorker — who paid for everything and acted as the host — was described as a famous venture capitalist and (alleged) philanthropist.

Peltz, who owns “sumptuous” real estate, financial companies and fast food chains such as Wendy’s, is an elusive guy. Not inclined to be in the spotlight, he’s a prominent supporter of the Republican Party, although he’s also well-connected to Democrats. One personal friend of his is Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Once referred to as a hermit of opulence, Peltz has a private hangar to store his Boeing 727. He spends much of the year secluded in his enormous mansions in Montsorrel, Florida and in Bedford, New York. In the latter estate, he’s surrounded by illustrious neighbors, including George Soros, Donald Trump, Ryan Reynolds and Ralph Lauren.

However, to a large extent, that hermit no longer exists. Over the past two years, the father-in-law of David Beckham’s son has renounced his relative anonymity, throwing himself back into the arena of notorious and frenetic activity. In the opinion of analysts such as James B. Stewart and Lauren Hirsch, business columnists for The New York Times, he’s doing this because he wants to leave a legacy, push his political and social ideas, and ultimately earn “respect” from his fellow citizens.

Nelson Peltz y Elon Musk en 2024 en Los Ángeles
Nelson Peltz and Elon Musk in Los Angeles, in 2024. Axelle/Bauer-Griffin (FilmMagic)

The elderly magnate despises political correctness. He’s willing to dedicate the final stretch of his life to fighting it from the hottest trench: cultural production. And Peltz has a plan: in his role as an activist investor, he aspires to take control of Disney, a company in which he owns a large block of shares. The Brooklyn-born Peltz accuses the conglomerate of having embarked on “a woke drift,” as harmful to the world as it is to its own bottom line.

In particular, Peltz is bothered that the main Disney subsidiary, Marvel, is producing blockbusters such as The Marvels or Black Panther, starring almost exclusively actors of African descent and women. For him, this commitment to diversity distances the company from a large part of its potential audience and is, apparently, “a recipe for disaster.”

The Marvels, released in November of last year, has grossed a “disappointing” $206 million to date. And it’s frankly difficult to argue that Black Panther, the sixth highest-grossing film in the history of the United States, has been hindered by having a cast that’s predominantly made up on African-American actors. Nevertheless, Peltz argues that Disney has recently been short of blockbusters. Closely aligned with the company’s former CFO Jay Rasulo and with the ubiquitous Elon Musk, the billionaire has been demanding a couple of seats on the company’s board of directors since 2022. He’s threatening to purge its current leadership.

The palace coup came close to succeeding on April 3. This time, Peltz even had the acquiescence of the powerful investment fund Blackwell Capital, which he persuaded to recognize the urgency of imposing a change of course within the studios that created Mickey Mouse. The challenge was very serious. But Bob Iger, Disney’s CEO, gathered the support of majority shareholders (such as George Lucas) at the last minute and got the board to resist Peltz’s designs.

Marvin Hier, Nelson Peltz y Rupert Murdoch
Marvin Hier, Nelson Peltz and Rupert Murdoch, during an event at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, in 2006.Evan Agostini (Getty Images)

But the investor isn’t used to losing. He treats his few defeats as temporary setbacks that can always be reversed in the next round. After the failure of his takeover — worthy of an episode of the hit HBO show Succession — Peltz went to the media, claiming that his takeover attempt is aimed at restoring the company’s financial standing. He affirms that Disney “owes this to its shareholders.” Consequently, he’s not going to throw in the towel, unless the board fulfills “what was promised” and improves the income statements.

Money isn’t a problem for Peltz, who has a personal fortune that has reached over $1.5 billion in recent years. While this is barely 1% of Musk’s net worth, it’s enough, apparently, to place him among the top 500 richest people on the planet. Given his vast resources — as he told the Financial Times — he won’t stop until Disney becomes Disney again, affirming that the public doesn’t go to the movies “to get a message.” He wants narratives that are less feminine, more heterosexual and less committed to ethnic diversity. “Why do I have to have a Marvel [movie] that’s all women?” the magnate lamented. “Not that I have anything against women, but why do I have to do that? Why do I need an all-Black cast?”

Peltz was born into an affluent Jewish family in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn and joined the family business, Peltz & Sons, in the mid-1960s. In his early 20s he emerged on New York’s glittering social scene. While his day job consisted of overseeing the delivery trucks that brought frozen products to some of the city’s best restaurants, at night he acted as a budding playboy, collecting trophy girlfriends (especially actresses). Among these women was Jennifer O’Neill. Pelz also tried to mingle with the hippy bohemia of Greenwich Village.

The contacts he managed to make explain his brief and disconcerting career as an extra in films such as Hi, Mom! (1970), Brian De Palma’s countercultural delirium starring a very young Robert De Niro, in which the star, playing the role of a Vietnam War veteran who tries his luck as a producer of homemade pornography, ultimately becomes part of the most outrageous acting troupe in history. The movie ends with De Niro blowing up a building.

Around this time Peltz, who was beginning to take business seriously, married his first wife, Cynthia Abrams, a wealthy heiress. He had already given up his youthful dream of settling in Oregon as a ski instructor. And, in his brief seconds in Hollywood, with his ever-present horn-rimmed glasses and used-car salesman’s smile, he appears in a scene that’s a prelude to a night of partying.

Brooklyn Beckham y Nicola Peltz
Brooklyn Beckham and Nicola Peltz in New York City, in 2024.Gilbert Carrasquillo (GC Images)

Peltz, with his well-established reputation for being a scoundrel, frequently parodied himself. But he also exhibited his proximity to New York City’s limousine left, of which De Palma was a part of, characterized both by his rejection of the Vietnam War and his hedonistic lifestyle. Those hippie whims would fade over time, although not his interest in cinema (he also participated in Ocean’s Twelve), which he passed on to his children.

Peltz and his older brother, Robert, dedicated the 1970s to greatly increasing the family assets. They did this by acquiring many of the restaurants to which they had been supplying products for years. In 1972, they partnered with Peter May, the third vertex of the business triangle that would lead them to success.

By the 1980s, Nelson had begun to fly solo. He diversified his investments and founded companies such as Triangle Industries, sold years later for a fortune. In 2005 he founded Trian Partners, the venture capital investment fund that has allowed him to associate his name with large companies such as Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Heinz, Cadbury, Kraft Food and Disney. As an activist investor, he attempts to rescue firms that he considers to be in financial trouble or lacking direction.

With three marriages under his belt, Peltz has had 10 children. Two of them, Nicola and Will, are actors, while his son Brad is a former professional ice hockey player. But instead of approaching old age more focused on enjoying the successes of his offspring than on continuing to add zeros to his bank account, he’s become embroiled in modern cultural and political controversies.

Protesta de trabajadores de Wendy's contra el empresario Nelson Peltz y sus políticas
In a protest against the labor policies of the Wendy's hamburger chain, a figure of its owner – businessman Nelson Peltz – was displayed Erik McGregor (LightRocket via Getty Images)

For years, Peltz has made campaign donations to legislators with a centrist profile, such as Joe Manchin. However, the emergence of George W. Bush and his “compassionate conservatism” made him abandon his moderation and pivot very clearly to the right. By 2020, he was offering his explicit support to Donald Trump, convinced that his presidency had been a successful and joyful restoration of American values.

Months later, during the assault on the Capitol, he showed remorse and called Trump “irresponsible.” He even decided to get behind the governor of Florida, Ron De Santis, as a presidential candidate in this year’s election, despite not sharing his social conservatism or his willingness to combat abortion. But Trump won the primaries and Peltz, once again, changed his mind. He has now put his influence and money at the service of his Bedford neighbor, with whom he has an intense love-hate relationship.

Helping the former president return to the White House is one of his strategic objectives right now, although it’s not at the level of his plot to take control of Disney. In the latter battle, he’s investing all of his passion. Experts haven’t yet clearly seen what the outcome of such a tangled matter will be, although more and more investors advocate that Disney shake off the progressive agenda. The only way out for Iger, it appears, is for the company to produce good results.

There’s even more to this story: for a few days now, Elon Musk has been insisting that Peltz’s entry into the board of directors is the stimulus that Disney needs. And history shows that Musk usually gets what he wants. For his part, Peltz picked up the gauntlet, stating: “Elon is a friend of mine. I think the world of him. This guy has no ego. That may be hard for you to believe, but having spent the amount of time I have with Elon, he’s willing to listen to anybody.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS