Hollywood Flashback: In the 1930s, Darryl F. Zanuck Had a Killer Instinct

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Darryl F. Zanuck in his office in the mid-1940s.

The mogul, who had an office filled with big-game trophies he shot on African safaris, had a successful four-decade run at Fox that included 'The Grapes of Wrath' and 'Planet of the Apes' before a series of flops cost him his job.

As an old-school mogul, it’s hard to beat Darryl F. Zanuck. Smoking a cigar and surrounded by big-game trophies he shot on African safaris, he would growl out lines like, “Don’t say ‘yes’ until I finish talking.” One of the rare non-Jewish founders of the film industry, Zanuck was born Methodist in 1902 in Wahoo, Neb., and by the late 1920s was production chief at Warner Bros. In 1932, he took out a full-page ad in THR to explain his type of film: “It must have the punch and smash that would entitle it to be a headline on the front page of any successful metropolitan daily.” A few months later, after Jack Warner declined to make him a partner, Zanuck quit and joined with Joseph Schenck to form 20th Century Pictures.

Three years later, it merged with Fox Studios. His deal brought him 30 percent of the common stock and an annual salary of $260,000 ($4.5 million today). Between 1935 and 1971, notable films made under his two tenures running 20th Century Fox included The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Planet of the Apes (1968). “What made him different is he started as a screenwriter,” says TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz. “He wasn’t just a businessman running a studio.” Zanuck could be heavy-handed with material, but he had an instinct for boxoffice success. That is, until he didn’t. In 1971, he was removed as CEO after a series of flops left the studio with an annual loss of $77 million ($455 million today). He died in 1979 in Palm Springs at age 77. His late son, Richard, made Jaws and won 1990’s best picture Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy.

This story first appeared in the July 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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