Sunday
Jul152012

OBITUARY / RICHARD D. ZANUCK

Hollywood continues to mourn the loss of one of the true gentlemen of the motion picture industry, Richard D. Zanuck.

The little bit of Hollywood’s last ‘golden era’ also died with the passing of producing giant Richard D. Zanuck, 77, in Los Angeles on Friday, July 13th. The son of the legendary 20th Century Fox Mogul Darryl F Zanuck, the Oscar-winner was one of most commercially savvy money-men in the history of American movie-making but also strove for artistic integrity in even his most mass-marketed entertainments.

Obituaries have been citing the expected list of acclaimed works that put him on the map as well as filtering through the declarations of love and admiration that have been pouring forth from the international industry. "He was one of a kind,” Tom Rothman, co-chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, told trade paper Variety. “He was elegant and urbane and gracious. But he was also determined and feisty and, in the best way possible, opinionated.” Zanuck’s tenure as head of 20th Century Fox was a volatile one. His name was all over such landmark films as The Sound of Music, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and The French Connection, but he also suffered through expensive duds like Doctor Dolittle, Star, Hello Dolly, Tora! Tora! Tora! and, most notoriously, Myra Breckenridge. He would ultimately suffer the ignominy of being fired by his father in the wake of huge financial losses, an event which caused a rift in their relationship that would last over a decade.  

He would bounce back in spectacular fashion, however. He ran Warner Bros production arm for a brief time, where he developed such works as Blazing Saddles and The Exorcist, before forming a producing partnership with David Brown in 1972 (their first film – the B-movie cult classic, Sssssss; pictured, right). Within a year, they would be standing on Oscar’s podium with the Best Picture trophy for The Sting. They backed a young director named Steven Spielberg on his debut film, The Sugarland Express, a relationship that would lead them to oversee the biggest film of their careers, Jaws. In a statement issued Friday, Spielberg said, “In 1974, Dick Zanuck and I watched the mechanical shark sink to the bottom of the sea.  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."

Zanuck/Brown would become one of Hollywood’s great success stories, with a cache of acclaimed hits including Joseph Sargent’s MacArthur, with Gregory Peck, Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, Bruce Beresford’s Best Picture-winner Driving Miss Daisy (co-produced with his wife Lili Fini Zanuck, seen below accepting the award) and Ron Howard’s Cocoon. “A filmmaking force I assumed would go on forever,” announced Howard upon hearing of the sad news, “His leadership on Cocoon made a huge difference. He'll be missed.” The pair were awarded The Academy's Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1991 and the Producers Guild of America's David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.

In recent years, it has been Tim Burton who has benefitted from Zanuck’s guidance; together they have crafted such films as the Planet of the Apes remake, Big Fish, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Tood, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. “He was like family to me - a mentor, friend and father figure,” Burton said late Friday. “Richard was a completely unique and amazing individual and there will never be anyone else like him."

Zanuck’s was a career that illustrated with precision the ebb and flow of the Hollywood power-player’s influence. There were enormous hits (The Eiger Sanction, Deep Impact, The Road to Perdition) and misjudged misses (The Island, Neighbours, Clean Slate). But the man that was Zanuck rose above his work, in spite of Hollywood’s fickle tendency to define one’s worth by box-office success. His favourite star, Johnny Depp (pictured, right, with Zanuck at the Dark Shadows premiere), honoured his friend with the words, “He was the last of a breed. He was the first producer that I ever experienced actually producing. He would shield the filmmaker from all unnecessary distractions and delicately build an actor's confidence on a daily basis. (He was) an incredibly strong and vital force on and off set, with a genuine kindness toward everyone, regardless of their position.”

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