Richard Zanuck: 1934-2012

6:00 AM PST 07/17/2012 by Alex Ben Block

The Oscar-winning producer grew up a mogul's son, created a legacy all his own -- from Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" to Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland."

Richard Zanuck once told me that as a boy, his favorite place to play was a grassy meadow on the backlot of 20th Century Fox, where the Century Plaza Hotel now stands. He would go there to get away from his father, the brilliant but always difficult Darryl F. Zanuck, who was the driving force at the studio he co-founded from the 1930s until the 1960s. DFZ, as he was called, was an authoritarian who lived large and was famously quoted saying, "Don't say yes until I finish talking." He was rarely any easier on his family than on those who worked for him.

Dick, as he was known to his friends, never got to play catch with his workaholic father, but they did attend the Academy Awards together when he was only 7 -- the first of many he would attend. His father taught him about movies from the inside out at a time when the business was undergoing wrenching changes. And the older Zanuck instilled in his son a work ethic that kept him producing movies until literally the day he died, on July 13, of a heart attack at his home in Beverly Hills at the age of 77.

As Hollywood royalty, the younger Zanuck might well have become another spoiled brat, but instead was surprisingly modest, always direct, easy to work with. He produced his first movie, Compulsion, at age 24. And his father named him president in charge of production at Fox when he was 28 -- as the youngest person to hold that position, he had to face down widespread charges of nepotism. But DFZ insisted his son was the only person he could trust to run the studio. And for most of the next eight years he was right, as Dick Zanuck oversaw Oscar winners like The Sound of Music, Patton and The French Connection while personally championing out-of-the-box movies like Planet of the Apes and M*A*S*H.

But the early '70s were a tumultuous time in America and in Hollywood. When the streak of hits stalled, DFZ very publicly fired his son to save his own position. It didn't work. DFZ was soon pushed out himself.

After Fox, Dick Zanuck served a short stint as an executive at Warners, though his disciplined habits didn't quite fit with the then-freewheeling studio. So he struck out on his own, partnering with journalist-turned-studio executive David Brown, and found huge success with movies like The Sting and The Verdict. It was Zanuck and studio president Sid Sheinberg who convinced Universal chairman Lew Wasserman to take a chance on a young director named Steven Spielberg. When Spielberg's production of Jaws was in danger of sinking, Zanuck refused to abandon ship.

After Zanuck and Brown parted ways in 1988, Zanuck formed a new company with his third wife, Lili Fini Zanuck. Together, they fought for another movie nobody wanted to make, Driving Miss Daisy, which cost $7.25 million and grossed more than $100 million domestically, winning them their own best picture Oscars.

As he grew older, studios would seek him out to produce pictures with difficult stars, directors or subject matter. And with Planet of the Apes, he found a new creative partnership with the eccentric Tim Burton. He would go on to produce six of Burton's movies including the billion-dollar Alice in Wonderland.

I once interviewed Zanuck in an office at Fox that felt as large as several football fields. He seemed embarrassed by its size, so we huddled in a corner for a personal conversation. In his quiet way, he told great tales of a life that bridged old and new Hollywood, from the golden era to the blockbuster age. Through it all, Zanuck -- who is survived by Lili, sons Harrison and Dean, daughters Virginia and Janet, nine grandchildren and sister Darrylin -- remained a class act in a crude town, a humble man even though he had plenty about which he could have bragged.

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ZANUCK'S THALBERG AWARD ACCEPTANCE

"Thank you, Academy Board of Governors. This is a very special moment for me. What this award stands for is recognition of the creative role of the producer in our business. My father had the honor of being the first recipient of this award, and received it again on two other occasions. He set a standard of filmmaking which I have strived to uphold. I am very proud of this honor and obviously my thanks go to many people. The artists who have been part of our films. David, my partner and dear friend for many years. My wife and partner, Lili, who has brought so much inspiration into my life. And to my father, who taught me so much and who gave me such an early opportunity. Thank you very much."

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IN HIS FRIENDS' WORDS: Colleagues shocked by his sudden death recall a life lived to the fullest

Samuel Goldwyn Jr., producer

"We went to different schools. I went to Fountain Valley, and he went to the Harvard School. We were both victims of 'Put them in a military school and they'll learn to behave.' We really got to know each other in the '50s and the '60s. He was a wonderful guy. We used to play tennis together, and he was a great tennis partner. He had a very good understanding of the role of the producer, which is to have a vision in your head and make sure everybody has the same vision and sticks with it. He had a very complex relationship with his father, but he was very protective and looked after his father. And after Darryl's death, he looked after his mother, Virginia. He was a very good son."

Tom Rothman, co-chairman, Fox Filmed Entertainment

"He was a good friend to me and an important mentor. He's a model for how to do a studio executive's job. The great thing about Dick is, he never stopped. He had a tough year when his father fired him from the job, but it was only the beginning for him. He went on to have a vital career in every aspect of the business. He managed to do a very rare thing in any field, which was to take his heritage and improve on it. And above everything else, he was a gentleman, an urbane and gracious man. When we were making [2001's] Planet of the Apes, we needed a producer. He was the only name that came to my mind, for two reasons. One, it was Dick Zanuck who approved the original Planet of the Apes, so what was kismet telling me? Second, I knew Tim Burton is a guy who values people who don't just talk the talk but do the work. Although there was a great gap in age and background between them, it never surprised me that they hit it off so well because they are both incredibly committed. Dick was a rare breed, someone who truly understood, from stem to stern, what's involved in making a film."

Bruce Beresford, director, Driving Miss Daisy

"Dick had seen some film I'd done, so he sent me the play of Driving Miss Daisy and asked, 'Do you think you could make a good film out of this?' I said, 'I think I could make a good film, but I doubt if anyone would come watch it.' He said, 'Well, I love it, and I want to do it,' and we went on from there. It took a long time to get the financing together. But Dick had tremendous fight and conviction in his own quiet, unassuming way. He wasn't an intellectual, but he had very good taste. He had just responded to the incredibly beautiful writing of Alfred Uhry. One day I sat down with him in his office and I said, 'Dick, everyone tells us it's not worth making and it's boring. Can they all be right and we're wrong?' And he said, 'No, we're right and they're wrong.' He saw Morgan Freeman do it onstage, and even though he wasn't well known, Dick said, 'How can we not use him?' And he also suggested we use Jessica Tandy, even though she was really a New York stage actress. He never let that faze him. Dick was wonderful to work with. As a director, you work with so many producers that go behind your back. Dick was completely upfront. He said what he thought. He was a man of few words. He didn't go into long dissertations, but he was very acute. I thought he was oddly naive for a man who had grown up in Hollywood. He believed what people said to him. He thought that everyone had the same integrity he had. I think his integrity and his straight-forwardness brought out the best in other people."

A. Scott Berg, author

"Dick's greatest quality -- having been the son of a Hollywood mogul -- was that he never had a sense of entitlement. He always knew he had to prove himself, and he always did, he always topped himself. He had an obviously deep knowledge of the industry, but I think he recognized that Hollywood is a young person's game. As a result of that, he never grew old. He grew wiser, but he was always very contemporary. That was part of the secret to his longevity. He also had an intense work ethic. I think, like the early moguls, even those who preceded his father, Dick knew and felt that it could all disappear tomorrow and you just had to keep working it. Nobody saw it better than Dick Zanuck how a family studio collapses and is taken away. And as a result of all that, he always had a deep sense of humility and also an extraordinary respect for artists. That seemed to be in the Zanuck porridge he ate as a child. His job as a producer was to protect artists -- everyone from Steven Spielberg to Tim Burton will tell you that. Above all, he had an absolute passion for movies -- or, as he called them, 'the pictures.' He always had his eye on what the next picture was going to be."

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