Saul Zaentz, who parlayed a successful career in the music business into an Oscar-winning second act as an independent movie producer, died Friday at his home in the San Francisco area from complications of Alzheimer’s. He was 92.
His nephew Paul Zaentz, a fellow producer, confirmed the news.
“He was an extraordinary man,” said Paul Zaentz, who worked with his uncle for 37 years. “He had a lot of guts, a lot of integrity.”
After presenting such major acts as Creedence Clearwater Revival on his Fantasy Records label, Zaentz moved into producing and shared three Academy Awards for best picture — for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Amadeus (1984) and The English Patient (1996).
Zaentz then received the Irving G. Thalberg Award in 1997 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his “consistently high quality of motion picture production.”
Incredibly, two of his best picture Oscars were for his first two films: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. His third film was the internationally acclaimed The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), nominated for a pair of Academy Awards.
He teamed with fledgling producer Michael Douglas on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Jack Nicholson starrer based on Ken Kesey’s novel earned Zaentz his first Academy Award, which he shared with Douglas. The film took home the top five Oscars, a rare achievement.
Befitting his music-industry background, his second best picture was music-based. Amadeus was based on the life and music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the jealousy his talent inspired. That film hauled in eight Oscars, including one for F. Murray Abraham as the envious Antonio Salieri.
His third best picture winner, The English Patient, based on an unpublished novel that Zaentz acquired, won nine Oscars — director Anthony Minghella and actress Juliette Binoche were among those honored — and received BAFTA’s best film award as well.
He produced an animated version of The Lord of the Rings (1978), directed by Ralph Bakshi, as well as Payday (1972), Three Warriors (1978) and At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991), and he executive produced The Mosquito Coast (1986), directed by Peter Weir.
More recently, Zaentz produced Goya’s Ghosts (2006), directed by Milos Forman, his man on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. Forman earned Oscars on those films as well.
Zaentz received the Producers Guild of America’s Motion Picture Producer of the Year Award in 1997 for The English Patient and received the PGA’s Vision Award for the film. Most auspiciously, the guild presented Zaentz with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994.
He also accepted BAFTA’s Academy Fellowship in 2003 for his career achievements.
In 1980, Zaentz created the Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley, Calif., an editing and sound-mixing facility. It housed the Saul Zaentz Co., Fantasy Studios, Concord Music Group and the Berkeley Digital Film Institute as well as other production companies.
Not averse to litigation, including suing studios over profit-sharing, Zaentz was involved in acrimonious litigation with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty over song rights. Zaentz’s contention was with two songs on Fogerty’s 1985 Centerfield album for Warner Bros. Records. Zaentz argued that the song “Zanz Kant Danz” was a slur on him. He filed suit, and Fogerty responded by changing the first word to “Vanz.”
Zaentz filed a second lawsuit, contending that Fogerty used the same chorus for “The Old Man Down the Road” as “Run Through the Jungle,” which Fogerty had recorded while on Zaentz’s Fantasy Records label. Fogerty ultimately prevailed after surreal courtroom testimony that, essentially, absolved him of plagiarizing himself.
“The way I view Saul Zaentz and his henchmen, shall I say — well, that probably gives it away,” Fogerty said in a New York Times interview in 2005. “I still view them in the same light. If I was walking down the street and those rattlesnakes were walking towards me, I would give them a wide berth.”
In September 2011, he sued Disney and Miramax for $20 million in profits from The English Patient.
Zaentz was born in Passaic, N.J. on Feb. 28, 1921. He ran away from home at 15, landing in St. Louis, where he worked as a peanut vendor at Cardinals baseball games. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II in the European and Pacific theaters.
After the war, Zaentz attempted to make a living at chicken farming and spent a semester studying animal husbandry at Rutgers. After six weeks on a farm, he decided to pursue other options and returned to St. Louis, where he studied business for two years, then headed to San Francisco.
There, Zaentz landed a job with jazz impresario Norman Granz and managed the company’s concert tours, going on the road with such jazz greats as Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck.
In 1955, Zaentz joined Fantasy Records, which recorded Creedence Clearwater Revival, led by former Fantasy warehouse worker John Fogerty and his brother Tom. Zaentz and a group of investors purchased Fantasy in 1967 and turned it into the world’s largest jazz label.
Buoyed by his success with CCR, Zaentz decided to enter another creative domain, the movies, and aspired to produce the adaptations of two acclaimed novels of the 1960s: Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and At Play in the Fields of the Lord, by Peter Matthiessen.
In late 2004, Zaentz and his partners sold the Fantasy label and all of its studio equipment to Concord Music Group — owned by an investment outfit led by producer Norman Lear — for about $90 million.
“Passion is [the] immeasurable, indescribable factor that separates movie from movie,” Zaentz said in his Thalberg acceptance speech. “Passion moves freely across borders, speaks every language and flourishes in every culture. The movement of passion is the most gratifying satisfaction in any moviemaker’s life. This happens when you see and hear people all over the world share their laughter, their crying and their sudden gasps at identical screen moments.
“Samuel Hoffenstein, a poet and screenwriter, poetically wrote, ‘The Holy Grail is not in the finding, it is in the journey.’ The Irving Thalberg Award memorializes a giant among giants who brought us a sense of film history. This belongs to the many with whom I have shared dreams and journeys. My cup is full. Thank you.”
Zaentz is survived by his four children, Dorian, Joshua, Athena and Jonnie, and seven grandchildren.