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Oscar Profile #103: Richard Zanuck

Born December 13, 1934 to 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck and his wife, actress Virginia Fox, Richard Zanuck grew up in the business. He accompanied his father to the studio on many occasions, often sitting in on rough cuts and went to work for Fox’s story department while studying at Stanford University.

Married to actress Lili Gentle in 1958, Zanuck produced his first film, Compulsion, from the Broadway play of the same name in 1959 while he was father was exiled in Europe with a series of mistresses. After producing just one more film, 1961’s Sanctuary, he was made head of production at Fox by his father. During this period, Zanuck personally produced just one film, but it was the internationally successful film version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. It was during this period that he met future producing partner, David Brown.

Zanuck’s marriage to Gentle produced two children. Divorced from Gentle and married to actress Linda Harrison (Planet of the Apes) in 1968, with whom he would have two more children, Zanuck was famously fired by his own father in 1970 for having authorized the production of the costly box-office duds, Doctor Dolittle and Star! a year before Fox’s board of directors ousted the senior Zanuck as well.

He began his long association with Brown in 1973 with the horror film Sssssss, but their collaboration really kicked off with The Sting, that year’s Oscar winner for which they went un-credited and were therefore did not receive Oscar recognition.

Zanuck and Brown had their biggest success with the 1975 box-office blockbuster Jaws, for which they received their first personal Oscar nominations.

Divorced from Harrison in 1978, then 44 year year-old Zanuck married 2 year-old Lili Fini to whom he remain married for the remainder of his life.

Zanuck and Brown continued their success, receiving another Oscar nomination for 1982’s The Verdict. Zanuck’s wife Lili joined the team with the 1985 smash hit Cocoon. It was Lili who was instrumental in choosing Cocoon co-star Jessica Tandy for the coveted lead in 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy for which the team won the Best Picture Oscar.

In 2001 Zanuck joined forces with director Tim Burton for the remake of Planet of the Apes, a critically lambasted film that nevertheless made lots of money at the box-office and began a long relationship with the director. Together they made such films as Big Fish; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland. Their last collaboration, 2012’s Dark Shadows was not a success.

Richard Zanuck died of a heart attack on July 13, 2012 at 77.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

COMPULSION (1959), directed by Richard Fleischer

The story of Leopold and Loeb, the 1924 University of Chicago student thrill killers has been portrayed on screen in numerous films from Alfred Hitchcock’s heavily fictionalized Rope to Tom Kalin’s heavily stylized Swoon. Fleischer’s film from Meyer Levin’s novel and play seems the most authentic albeit with the names of the characters, as in Rope, changed.

Former child actor Dean Stockwell is mesmerizing repeating his Broadway triumph as the character based on Nathan Leopold, completely dominating both the character of Richard Loeb and the actor playing him – relative newcomer Bradford Dillman substituting for Broadway’s Roddy McDowall. Top-billed Orson Welles hams it up as a fictionalized version of their defense lawyer, the legendary Clarence Darrow, but is nevertheless effective in his brief supporting turn. This was definitely an auspicious debut for producer Zanuck.

THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), directed by Robert Wise

The most successful film of its day and for a time the most successful box-office film of all time, it completely dominated world cinema for several years with audiences going to see it over and over again. The combination of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s score, the simple, yet mostly true, story of the then still living Maria Von Trapp, the gorgeous location filming in Salzburg, Austria and the Swiss Alps and the lilting soprano of Julie Andrews were something few at the time could get enough of.

The downside of the film’s success was the rush by Hollywood studios to duplicate its success. The worst offender was 20th Century-Fox, which under Zanuck’s tutelage, nearly collapsed under the dead weight of Doctor Dolittle and Star! The result was the notorious public firing of Zanuck by his own father. Zanuck later said that he got over it, but his father never did.

JAWS (1975), directed by Seven Spielberg

Zanuck, now an independent producer in partnership with David Brown, topped the phenomenal success of The Sound of Music with this summer hit that made people afraid to go into the water, so real were the unseen shark attacks in the young director’s film.

Zanuck, having earlier produced Spielberg’s first film, The Sugarland Express, was the young director’s biggest champion, giving him carte blanche to make his film of Peter Benchley’s best-seller.

DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989), directed by Bruce Beresford

Zanuck’s wife, Lili Fini Zanuck, was instrumental in getting him and Brown interested in producing the film version of this moderately successful off-Broadway play, which became the most talked about film in terms of its search for a leading lady since Gone With the Wind.

Speculation centered on screen legends Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, but Zanuck’s wife held out for character actress Jessica Tandy who had played one of the main characters in the team’s highly successful Cocoon four years earlier. The publicity surrounding Tandy’s choice centered on reminders of her having been the original Blanche Du Bois in Broadway’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Released with great fanfare, Tandy didn’t disappoint, and was the odds-on favorite to win the year’s Best Actress Oscar. The film’s unexpected win for Best Picture was the icing on the cake for the Zanucks and Brown.

BIG FISH (2003), directed by Tim Burton

Easily the best of the six films Zanuck made with director Burton, this mystical film seamlessly weaves realistic elements with flashbacks and tall tales to the extent that it’s difficult to know exactly when truth becomes fiction and fiction becomes truth, or does it?.

The story revolves around Billy Crudup as a son trying to come to terms with the death of his father (Albert Finney) whose life is told in flashbacks in which he is played by Ewan McGregor. Jessica Lange and Helena Bonham Carter co-star.

RICHARD ZANUCK AND OSCAR

  • Jaws (1975) – nominated Best Picture
  • The Verdict (1982) – nominated Best Picture
  • Driving Miss Daisy (1975) – Oscar - Best Picture
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