I thought producer Richard D. Zanuck would live forever. He was so energetic, so happy over the last decade producing films with Tim Burton, so keen on staying in the game. We talked once about writing a biography–he was the subject early in his career of one of the best Hollywood books ever written, John Gregory Dunne’s “The Studio”–but he didn’t have the time, he said. Books were for producers who were ready to take off their spurs. He wasn’t.
Zanuck, who died unexpectedly Friday morning at home at age 77, learned about Hollywood from the ground up. He tussled for many years with his father, the legendary cigar-chomping movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, who virtually brought his son up on the lot of the 20th Century Fox studio, picked him to take over the reins at 26 and fired him nine years later.
”It was different from a normal father-son relationship,” Zanuck told me in our 2003 NYT interview.” But I was able to patch everything up before my father died.”
Zanuck dealt with fathers in sons in many of the 40 movies he backed in a 50-year career. Among them are the Oscar-winners ”Jaws,” ”The Sting,” and ”Driving Miss Daisy.” His son Dean discovered ”The Road to Perdition” as a graphic novel. ”I see here a father-son thing that might appeal to you,” Zanuck wrote to Steven Spielberg. Two days later Spielberg called to make the deal at DreamWorks.
Fox’s co-chairman, Tom Rothman, brought Zanuck and Burton together for the remake of a Fox movie Zanuck had green-lighted as studio head in 1969, ”Planet of the Apes.” (Zanuck even married Charlton Heston’s co-star, the Fox contract player Linda Harrison.) When Zanuck first met Burton for breakfast at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the two men clicked.
The two men complemented each other. The producer is detail-oriented and organized, which gives the director the room he needs to create his fantastic movie worlds, Rothman told me. ”He deals with the studio and lets Tim be an artist. They help each other. Tim is the visual guy, and Dick is the verbal guy.”
Burton said: ”Richard has been so many different things, he’s mind-blowing that way.” The two went on to team on John August’s “Big Fish,” an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel ”Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the Stephen Sondheim musical “Sweeney Todd,” and two 3-D films, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Dark Shadows.” Burton praised Zanuck’s ”full experience of things…That’s where his calm comes from. He’s seen it all. The weird thing about him is, he doesn’t seem jaded. I’m about 20 times more jaded than he is.”
Zanuck knows how to tell a story, and many are about his father, who ran Fox’s Hollywood studio for 48 years. Like the time his father called him to New York for a Fox corporate board meeting. It was 1962; the board was preoccupied with the over-budget, scandal-plagued epic ”Cleopatra.” Darryl Zanuck was trying to protect his own big movie, ”The Longest Day,” from being released in too many theaters (considered a bad thing at the time). He wound up talking the board into letting him take over the presidency of the entire company.
But he had no plans to stop living with his latest mistress in Paris, Richard Zanuck said. So Darryl asked his son to give him a list of candidates to run the West Coast studio. Richard presented him with a piece of paper with one word on it, ”Me.” Richard credits his father with going for it, even if he’d be accused of nepotism.
First off, the young Zanuck closed the almost-bankrupt Fox Hollywood studio, hanging on to just one television show, ”The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” on another lot. Zanuck also kept a few writers, including Ernest Lehman, who wrote ”The Sound of Music.” It became one of several blockbusters that revived the studio.
Fox had a good run, turning out such Oscar-winners as ”Patton,” ”The French Connection,” ”Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and the original ”M*A*S*H.” But then two musical belly-flops, ”Dr. Dolittle” and ”Hello, Dolly!,” ended Zanuck’s tenure.
Again he was called to a special New York board meeting by his father, then 75. But this time he was fired. And his father soon followed: his mother Virginia Zanuck controlled 300,000 shares, got involved in a proxy fight and within four months, Darryl was thrown out.
Zanuck went on to team up with his friend, ex-studio executive David Brown, creating the Zanuck/Brown Company, and in 1987 he founded the Zanuck Company with his wife, Lili, who started her producing career at the age of 25 with the Oscar-winning ”Cocoon,” directed by the young Ron Howard. Zanuck has never hesitated to entrust neophytes with responsibility, as his father did with him. His sons Dean and Harrison work at the Zanuck Company with Richard and Lili, who were married 33 years.
”I was always the youngest person on the set,” Zanuck said. ”Now I could be the grandfather of a lot of people I’m working with.” Every few years, when he is in New York having lunch at Cipriani, Zanuck used to visit his father’s old haunt, Suite 1125 at the Plaza Hotel. ”I spent so much time there,” he said. ”I’m a sentimental fool.”