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Saul Zaentz, who headed the leading jazz label Fantasy Records before becoming a film producer, died Jan. 3 at age 92 in San Francisco from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. Michael Douglas remembers how Zaentz took a gamble on their Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the first of the producer’s best picture winners, which also included Amadeus and The English Patient.
STORY: Legendary Producer Saul Zaentz Dies at 92
When I took over One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from my father, I went through his old papers and saw that at one time Saul and Fantasy Records had inquired about the project. So I contacted Saul and was able to strike up a relationship and a deal, which worked out great because I was in the Bay Area doing Streets of San Francisco, and Fantasy Records was in Berkeley right across the bridge.
He was a voracious reader, who knew the value of a great classic piece of material. While we were doing Cuckoo’s Nest, he was in the middle of acquiring The Lord of the Rings. He was a shy man and could be misunderstood and was extremely litigious, but he also was a wonderful combination of street smart with a great intellectual, a great pool player, a big gambler. He certainly gambled in his career. He financed Cuckoo’s Nest by borrowing against the proceeds of his company and its facilities, much to his partners’ chagrin. Our original budget was $1.4 million, and we ended up going close to $4 million, without any outside financing.
We were both two virgins as far as producing was concerned. We kept auditioning directors, and all the directors held their cards so close to their vest, they didn’t want to show you anything. Then Milos Forman came along, opened the script to page one and started to share with us what he wanted to do. We were so relieved and excited, we definitely wanted him to be part of it. When we finished and showed it to the different studios, we didn’t get many takers — only United Artists, which wasn’t necessarily one’s first choice back then, but they did a great job with it.
I think back to that great night at the Oscars. We were the favorite in some areas with nine nominations, but Jaws was up that year too. I had to persuade Jack Nicholson to go, because he been nominated and lost four times and felt hexed. We lost the first four nominations, but then it all started with screenplay, then director, actress and actor and best picture. We were joking, “Well, I guess it’s all going to be downhill from here.” But Saul won three best picture Oscars, one for each decade. He was the epitome of an independent, with an incredible sense of material, and the courage to see it through. I owe everything to him. I was 28 years old and he gave me my first producing opportunity. I’ll miss him dearly.
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