Remembering Hollywood Superproducer Richard D. Zanuck

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THR's Alex Ben Block recalls the life of a mogul's son who created a legacy all his own -- from Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" to Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland."

This story first appeared in the July 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

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.

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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 was in 1988, Zanuck formed 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.

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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 block- buster age. Through it all, Zanuck — who is survived by Lili, sons Harrison and Dean, daughters Virginia and Janet, nine grand- children 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.