Richard D. Zanuck: The Stuff of Which Legends Are Made

13 Jul

Richard D. Zanuck (l) and his business-partner and wife, Lili Fini Zanuck (r), accept the 1989 Best Picture Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy.  Fun-fact: at the time, Ms. Zanuck was only the second woman to ever win an Oscar as the producer of a Best Picture winner. The first woman to do so was the late Julia Phillips, one of three producers of 1973’s The Sting, which was actually a Zanuck-Brown production during the team’s tenure with Universal Pictures. Nice.


Legendary Hollywood movie producer Richard D. Zanuck has passed away at the age of 77. He is survived by, among others,  his wife Lili Fini Zanuck, with whom he co-produced 1989’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Driving Miss Daisy. Even without the distinction of being an Oscar winner, Zanuck was already a show-business powerhouse.

His father was the mighty Darryl F. Zanuck, one of the founders of 20th Century Fox. Under the elder Zanuck’s watch, Fox produced an array of successful films that included such major Oscar winners as How Green Was My Valley (1941–and the movie that topped Citizen Kane in the Academy sweepstakes), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and  All About Eve (1950). By the 1960s, Darryl was out at Fox, and Richard was in (that’s the short version of the story as the elder Zanuck was actually out, in, and out again), this during the era in which the gazillion dollar production of Liz and Dick’s Cleopatra (1963) almost destroyed the studio while a scant two years later The Sound of Music brought it back to thundering life.

While at Fox, Richard Zanuck not only had his stamp on a host of hits, such as Planet of the Apes (1968), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Patton  (Oscar’s Best Picture winner for 1970), and The French Connection (1971, and another major Oscar winner), he was also at least partially responsible for such expensive flops as Dr. Dolittle (1967) and Hello Dolly! (1969).  By his own admission, Zanuck later offered that the phenomenal success of The Sound of Music set a bar for family friendly musical extravaganzas that such follow-ups as, say, Dr. Dolittle, could not even hope to replicate. Even so, Fox famously promoted both Dr. Dolittle and Hello Dolly! to Oscar contender status as the two films were both finalists for Best Picture.

A poster is worth how many movie tickets? Today, summer blockbusters regularly open on thousands of screens, but Jaws was in all-new waters, so to speak, when it debuted on 490 screens back in the summer of ’75. The legend is that a plan to open on even more screens was thwarted because the idea was to create another kind of hysteria–other than shark sightings–by creating longer lines at box-offices, which would only be possible, of course, with fewer screens.

Zanuck was eventually released from his duties at Fox and formed a partnership with [the late] David Brown whom he’d met at Fox.  For several years, the pair produced movies through Universal Pictures. This partnership resulted in the likes of The Sting (1973’s Best Picture winner, for which Zanuck and Brown served as executive producers, and which I will write about one day), as well as Steven Spielberg’s feature film debut, 1974’s The Sugarland Express (starring Goldie Hawn–and filmed on location in Texas). Of course, from there the Zanuck-Brown company hired Spielberg for their next film, 1975’s summertime blockbuster, Jaws–and the rest is pretty much history. The film soared to the top of the box-office charts, and it also prompted studios to consider wider release patterns rather than the then standard of platforming a movie: opening on the coasts firsts, and then opening slowly across the nation, sometimes one city, or one theater at a time.  In contrast, Jaws opened wide, bolstered by a national advertising blitz, and then went wider still once the buzz was in full swing.  Though Spielberg was famously snubbed by his peers in the Academy’s directors’ branch that year, Zanuck earned his first actual Best Picture Oscar nomination, sharing it with c0-producer Brown.

Nice work if you can get it: during his reign as 20th Century Fox’s Head of Production, Richard Zanuck oversaw the mammoth musical smash, The Sound of Music, which supplanted Gone With the Wind as the all-time top box-office champ. Ten years later, he co-produced Jaws, which also climbed to the top of the all-time moneymaker charts. Somewhere between his work at Fox and the time he spent at Universal with David Brown, he was briefly on board at Warner’s and reportedly helped  usher production on the 1973 landmark horror film, The Exorcist, which would go on to earn a fortune and duke it out with The Sting for top honors at the 1973/74 Academy Awards.

The hits just kept on coming for Zanuck-Brown as they went back to Fox and produced Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (a 1982/83 Best Picture nominee) and 1985’s Cocoon (another blockbuster, true, but my one-time viewing was more than enough.) By the time of Cocoon, and its unfortunate sequel, the second Mrs. Zanuck was on board, and if there is any redemption to be found in either Cocoon film, it’s that the Zanucks established a working relationship with the late, great, Jessica Tandy, who was then perfectly cast as Miss Daisy in the film version of Alfred Uhry’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning play.  Never mind that Tandy won an Oscar–that’s just a bonus–it was quite a thrill to see one of the leading lights of the theatrical world finally get the chance to show all her acting mettle onscreen, front and center, rather than a second or third billed supporting player. (She was famously overlooked–in favor of Vivien Leigh–for the film version of her early stage triumph as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Names Desire.)  Plus, even though skeptics like to dismiss Driving Miss Daisy, I was and still am a fan of the movie (it deserves a blog entry all its own), and I like to remind the cynics that it was actually huge hit, without a doubt defying conventional notions that movies about “older people” wouldn’t fly with contemporary audiences without some far-fetched gimmick (fountain of youth, robbin’ a bank, aliens, zombies, vampires, apocalypse, elaborate special effects, oldies soundtrack, “flash-cutting,” etc.)

Jessica Tandy (l) and Morgan Freeman (r) in  1989’s Academy Award winning Driving Miss Daisy. Per Inside Oscar by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona, one studio offered to work with the Zanucks on the film if Bette Midler and Eddie Murphy were cast in the leading roles. Warners said yes, but, fearful of Tandy’s age and the stress of shooting on location in Atlanta during the summer, made the actress pay her own $130,000 insurance premium. When the movie, which was made for about 7.5 million and ultimately earned over 100 million, turned ought to be such an unqualified hit, the studio reimbursed Tandy and gave her, as well as Freeman and director Bruce Beresford, a chunk of the profits. Freeman, btw, played Hoke Colburn in the original off-Broadway production of Alfred Uhry’s play about the slowly evolving relationship between a rich Southern widow and her chauffeur during the Civil Rights era.

To clarify, Tandy turned 80 during the location shoot in Georgia, and her Oscar nominated co-star Morgan Freeman was in his early 50s. A lot of studios turned down the property–or attached outrageous strings to it–before Warner Bros. said yes.  Zanuck took a gamble with this one, and it paid off gloriously. A year after Miss Daisy, he was awarded the Academy’s prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which he shared with David Brown, in recognition “of work” [that]  reflect[s] a consistently high quality of motion picture production.”

In recent years, Zanuck has worked closely with director Tim Burton on such films as the 2001 Plant of the Apes remake (!) Big Fish (2003), Charlie & the Chocolate Factory (2005), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Alice in Wonderland (2010–another flat-out global blockbuster), and this summer’s less fortunate Dark Shadows.

Zanuck was given a leg-up in the biz because his dad was so well-connected, but even with a few high profile costly failures, he made a place for himself and secured his own status as one of the savviest producers of the  past several decades. He helped open doors for female producers (see the picture at the top of the article); he knew how to take a chance on a relative unknown, such as Spielberg, and when to trust his material and hire the right people (Tandy, Freeman, director Bruce Beresford) when the same material had other execs running scared.  He was a showman. It was in his blood, but he made it his own.

Thanks, Richard…

More Zanuck coverage in Variety:

Zanuck at the Internet Movie Database (includes quote about the effect of The Sound of Music on the rest of the business):

The Thalberg Award at the official Academy website:


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