Oscar-Winning Producer Richard D. Zanuck Dies at 77

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Zanuck's many films ranged from "The Sting" and "Jaws" to "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Alice in Wonderland."

Richard D. Zanuck, whose distinguished producing career included the best picture Oscar winners The Sting and Driving Miss Daisy, the blockbuster Jaws and such well-regarded films as The Verdict and Cocoon, died Friday of a heart attack at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 77.

More recently, Zanuck produced Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. He worked on six films with the director.

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Regarded as one of the more progressive producers in Hollywood, Zanuck was partnered with his wife, Lili Fini Zanuck, in the Zanuck Co. Their first production was Driving Miss Daisy (1992). Along with four Oscars, the film captured several other top honors: a Golden Globe award, the National Board of Review Award and Producer of the Year honors from the Producers Guild of America.

In 1999, Zanuck and his longtime partner, David Brown, received the Irving G. Thalberg Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It marked the first time that an honoree was a second-generation recipient – Zanuck’s father, former 20th Century Fox head of production and chairman Darryl F. Zanuck, was given the award in 1938, 1945 and 1951. They also are the only father and son producers to be nominated for best picture Oscars.

In a statement Friday, Steven Spielberg related a story about working with Zanuck on Jaws, the summer thriller that became the first movie to break the $100 million mark domestically.

"In 1974, Dick Zanuck and I sat in a boat off Martha's Vineyard and watched the mechanical shark sink to the bottom of the sea,” he recalled. “Dick turned to me and smiled. ‘Gee, I sure hope that's not a sign.’ That moment forged a bond between us that lasted nearly 40 years.

“He taught me everything I know about producing. He was one of the most honorable and loyal men of our profession, and he fought tooth and nail for his directors. Dick Zanuck was a cornerstone of our industry, both in name and in deed.”

In 1962, Zanuck became the youngest studio chief in history in1965 when he was appointed by his father as head of Fox at age 28. During his five years at the helm, the studio earned an impressive 159 Oscar nominations. Three of the films -- The Sound of Music (1965), Patton (1970) and The French Connection (1971) -- won best picture. Other studio successes under Zanuck’s tenure included Planet of the Apes (1968), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and MASH (1970).            

Zanuck subsequently moved from Fox to become senior executive vp at Warner Bros., where he and soon-to-be partner Brown oversaw production of such box-office hits as The Exorcist (1973) and Blazing Saddles (1974).

Richard Darryl Zanuck was born Dec. 13, 1934, in Los Angeles (his mother was actress Virginia Fox). He graduated from Stanford and served in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of lieutenant. Upon his discharge, Zanuck got a job at Fox as a story and production assistant, working on such films as Island in the Sun (1957) and The Sun Also Rises (1957). He went on to produce Sanctuary (1961) and The Chapman Report (1962) and served as vp in charge of all productions and eventually as studio president.

However, several box-office failures like Doctor Dolittle (1967) and Hello, Dolly! (1969) led to a heated proxy battle in 1969-70, and Zanuck was removed from the top post. (His father stayed at the studio until 1971.)

The younger Zanuck moved to Warners and formed the Zanuck/Brown Co. in 1971, and the duo went on to become one of the film industry’s most influential producing teams. They received the David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award from the PGA in 1995.

They produced Spielberg’s first feature, The Sugarland Express (1974), as well as his second film, Jaws (1975). Zanuck/Brown also produced the Paul Newman-Robert Redford starrer The Sting, which won seven Oscars, including best picture. They produced another acclaimed Newman vehicle, The Verdict (1982), which was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture.

In 1988, Zanuck teamed with his wife to establish the Zanuck Co., and their debut film was Driving Miss Daisy. "The hardest picture I ever had to get made was Driving Miss Daisy because it was such an unlikely project. In today's marketplace, audiences expect summer blockbusters, and films like Planet of the Apes don't have it that tough," he once said in contrasting two of his films.

The Zanuck Co. followed up with the critically acclaimed Rush (1991), directed by Lili and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patric. Its score by Eric Clapton became one of the most acclaimed of the year.

The Zanuck Co. went on to produce director Ron Howard’s Cocoon (1985), and its sequel, Cocoon: The Return (1988). Subsequent productions included Mulholland Falls (1996); the box-office hit Deep Impact (1998); and, with Clint Eastwood, True Crime (1999).

Zanuck and his wife also produced the 72nd Annual Academy Awards telecast in 2000.

Zanuck’s other producing credits with Lili include Rich in Love (1993), which reunited them with the Miss Daisy creative team of director Bruce Beresford and writer Alfred Uhry, and Wild Bill (1995). More recently, the Zanuck Co. produced Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and Yes Man (2008).

In collaboration with HBO, the Zanucks were developing The Decalogue, consisting of 10 one-hour films, each based on one of The Ten Commandments of the Bible, set in contemporary Los Angeles.

In addition to his wife of 34 years, Zanuck is survived by sons Harrison and Dean, daughters Virginia and Janet,  nine grandchildren and his sister Darrylin.