By all accounts Richard Zanuck, who died of a heart attack yesterday morning at 77, was one of Hollywood’s good guys. The son of Darryl F. Zanuck, one of the founding fathers of Hollywood and longtime chairman of 20th Century-Fox, Richard beat the odds and emerged from his father’s shadow to become a legend in his own right.
After learning the ropes and producing the still interesting and compelling “Compulsion,” in the early 60’s, and at the age of 28, Richard became head of production at 20th Century-Fox. The era that followed would bring us “Planet of the Apes,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “MASH,” “Patton,” and “The Sound of Music.”
Then came a series of high-profile flops (“Hello, Dolly!,” “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” and “Doctor Dolittle”) and the incredible moment when Richard was fired by his own father. Ugly and bitter can’t begin to describe the fallout, but Richard dusted himself off and after a short time as an executive at Warner Bros., he would go out on his own with partner David Brown and for the rest of his life enjoy a robust career filled with commercial and critical successes.
“The Sting,” “The Verdict,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Sugarland Express,” Cocoon,” straight through to Tim Burtons’ “Alice In Wonderland,” and “Dark Shadows” — Zanuck was in the mix straight through to this year.
The film Zanuck will always be remembered for, though, is “Jaws,” which not only changed Hollywood forever by creating the summer blockbuster but also brought us director Steven Spielberg. Zanuck’s role in ensuring “Jaws” and therefore Spielberg were successful cannot be overstated. While in production, the delays, technical problems, and budget overruns made it look as though a full-blown disaster was assured. But Zanuck protected Spielberg through all of it, even when the studio threatened to pull the plug.
Though the production ran an incredible 100 days over schedule and rumors that Spielberg would be fired were everywhere, Zanuck stood by the young director and his vision and, well, you know the rest.
Personally, Zanuck was my kind of producer. He wanted butts in seats but never at the expense of quality. He wanted to make great films, but also films for the masses and unlike so many, he succeeded in this a lot more than he failed. Most of all, nothing he produced was culturally or politically divisive nor did it insult your intelligence.
Zanuck was also a familiar face, memorably appearing in the DVD extras of his films to offer up insightful and candid commentary on the history and making of the film. It was always apparent that he loved and believed in what he did and backed to the hilt everyone who worked for him.
He will obviously be missed by those who knew him, but he will also be missed by those of us who simply love movies.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC