Sadly, one of Hollywood’s great movie producers has died. The winner of three Best Picture Oscars and the Academy’s coveted Irving Thalberg Award, Saul Zaentz fought for quality and boasted extraordinary taste which he never compromised. Paul Zaentz wrote in an email that his uncle, who was 92, died Friday. He was at home in the Bay Area, where he had lived most of his adult life.
Zaentz, born of immigrant Jewish parents in Passaic, New Jersey, defined the creative producer. He painstakingly developed material for years, was willing to mortgage his Zaentz Film Center for financing if need be, and saw every movie through to completion and release. His first film, Darryl Duke’s “Payday” (1972), was a gritty indie starring Rip Torn as a tough country singer. Next the producer backed “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the surprise United Artists drama that took home five Oscars in 1976 including Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman) and Best Actor (Jack Nicholson). Originally acquired for the screen by Kirk Douglas, his son Michael Douglas brought in Zaentz, who nurtured and willed it into existence.
Starting out in the record business, and eventually founding Fantasy Records, Zaentz defined the independent producer, based outside the Hollywood mainstream in Berkeley. Unusually enough he believed in making high quality films, mostly literary adaptations. An astute businessman, he banked on making them successful.
Forman’s thrilling 1984 film adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s hit play “Amadeus” was another unlikely global success, starring Thomas Hultz as Mozart and F. Murray Abraham as Salieri, winning another round of eight Oscars. He also backed Bay Area filmmaker Philip Kaufman’s and Jean-Claude Carriere’s 1988 adaptation of Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche, which earned two Oscar nominations.
Long fascinated with the theme of the clash between civilized man and the primitive, Zaentz hired Carriere to adapt Peter Matthiessen’s 1965 thriller “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” about missionaries and their wives tangling with tribal headhunters in the Amazon, which was shot by Hector Babenco on location, followed by Peter Weir’s film version of Paul Theroux’s 1986 “The Mosquito Coast,” starring Harrison Ford in perhaps his finest performance, which ultimately lost money. Although Zaentz long wanted to produce South African novelist J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel “Waiting for the Barbarians,” he was never able to raise the financing.
Zaentz was willing to go to court to redress any wrongs, memorably tangling with Credence Clearwater lead singer John Fogerty over his “defamatory” lyric “Zanz Can’t Dance, but he’ll steal your money,” as well as distributor Harvey Weinstein, who released Anthony Minghella’s 1996 adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient,” which earned Zaentz his third Best Picture Oscar.
The producer’s last film, released worldwide in 2006, was period fiction “Goya’s Ghosts,” directed by Forman and starring Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgard.
I interviewed Zaentz several times over the years, and especially enjoyed a dinner with him and Milos Forman and their wives at the San Francisco International Film Festival several years ago. Zaentz fought hard to make thought-provoking literary dramas of a kind we rarely see any more. Scott Rudin is the producer who carries that torch forward.