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Richard Zanuck: A Lifetime of Pictures

Zanuck's father might've given him the keys, but Dick's been in the driver's seat ever since

In a phrase, Richard Zanuck is to the manor born.

Even before he attended his first Oscar ceremony at 7, the business of filmmaking has been in his blood. Tyrone Power and Orson Welles were frequent guests in his home growing up. His father, Darryl F. Zanuck, was one of the studios’ founding moguls, and won the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award so many times that, not unlike the FDR doctrine that imposed presidential term limits, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences placed a moratorium on the honor after Darryl F. claimed a third.

But while Richard Zanuck has enjoyed all the benefits that money and breeding could afford, he has doggedly carved out his own path of distinction. Perched on the trophy mantle in his library is the Triple Crown of producer laurels: the Thalberg, reserved for the Mount Olympus of filmmakers; the Producers Guild of America’s David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award; and a best picture Oscar he and wife Lili won for “Driving Miss Daisy.” The first two honors are shared with longtime partner David Brown, whom Zanuck describes as the “East Coast intellectual” to his own “kid from the beach in Santa Monica.”

If at 70 Zanuck is no longer a kid, he operates as if he’s still in his 20s, when he earned his first producer credits and eventually became the youngest production chief in Hollywood. A self-described sports fanatic who still runs five miles a day and views his home gym as his sanctuary, Zanuck exercises an iron-man work ethic.

“Dick’s a good athlete and a great competitor,” says Samuel Goldwyn Jr., a close friend who knows a thing or two about living in his father’s shadow. “He loves to compete; he does that when he plays tennis, he does that when he runs, he does that when he makes movies.”

Visiting Zanuck at his home in a gated community high above the Beverly Hills Hotel, one wonders why he would ever leave the place. A lavish Georgian-style mansion that was built brick by brick with materials imported exclusively from England by Lili and replete with tennis court, lap pool, twin guest houses and billiard room, it’s the kind of Shangri-la that all but eliminates the need to “get away.”

Between the Zanucks’ Beverly Hills residence and their ski chalet in Sun Valley, the meaning of “home” takes on a whole other connotation. These are merely the retreats between long stretches spent on soundstages and at film locations. A poolside lunch spent with Zanuck in late May took advantage of a brief respite from filming at London’s Pinewood Studios, where he had been holed up for months on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” his third collaboration with Tim Burton.

Zanuck was due to fly directly back after the Memorial Day weekend and the trainer’s repast seemed designed for maximum efficiency: bruscetta to start, sliced chicken breast atop leafy greens dressed with a balsamic vinegrette, and a brownie topped with fresh berries and a sprig of mint for dessert. One could envision this last touch as that burst of energy Zanuck would need for an afternoon workout. It’s this relentless drive that makes retirement out of the question.

“I consider myself too old to retire,” says Zanuck, looking fit in his trademark buttoned-down shirt. “I think people should retire in their 50s. But now, at my age, I’m considered cool. (Retirement) to me is like a punishment. If this were all taken away it would be like being sent to prison. Besides, it’s very stimulating to work with younger people.”

These younger talents include Burton and newer-generation directors like Wes Anderson and Todd Fields, with whom Zanuck has projects lined up along with another dozen movies in various stages of development. “This is really the only thing I know how to do,” he asserts, “and I really enjoy doing it.”

So much so that Zanuck appears stumped when asked what he would have done with his life if filmmaking didn’t run in the family. “I wouldn’t know,” he admits after a pause. “I was practically born on Stage 5 at the studio. As a young kid I had to be driven to the lot to sell Saturday Evening Posts. Every summer through high school and college I worked in a different department (at Fox). So the studio to me was like a home.”

When pressed on the matter, Zanuck settles on the word “writer,” but admits that calling stems from his association with pictures and father Darryl, who placed a premium on celebrated novelists and playwrights, and personally produced such classic adaptations as Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge,” John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”

“In those days there was a great deal of attention paid to literary properties,” recalls David Brown, who was recruited to Hollywood from Cosmopolitan magazine by the elder Zanuck to become executive story editor at Fox “when that meant everything.” He eventually took the young Zanuck under his wing, and Brown recalls “Dick sitting there reading scripts — very solitary, very dour and very serious.”

Working with the silver-tongued Brown, Zanuck — a lit major at Stanford U. — might have realized that his writing aspirations, however romantic, took a back seat to his nose for material. When he was appointed by his father as executive vice president in charge of production at Fox in 1962 at the tender young age of 28, Zanuck and Brown helped shepherd a string of hits through the Fox pipeline, from “The Sound of Music” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” to “The French Connection” and “Patton.”

Zanuck also pushed the greenlight on some major dogs, including “Dr. Dolittle,” “Hello Dolly” and “Star,” behemoths that helped signal the death knell of the Hollywood musical, crippled the studio financially and ultimately sealed Zanuck’s doom in a boardroom coup in 1970.

“We were eliminated,” recalls Brown. “Dick was told by his father that he could’ve been spared, but that I — who was regarded as Dick’s Svengali — would have to go. He said, ‘If David goes, I go.’ That’s the way it’s been with us.”

Richard Zanuck talks about this “dark period,” as he terms it, with an almost clinical detachment. He’s protective of his father’s legacy (Darryl F. died in 1979) even as he acknowledges an underlying competitiveness in their relationship. “My father was not in the best of health,” says Zanuck. “The board prior to that had asked me to become president (and head of production) and he moved up to chairman of the board, and he never recovered from that psychologically. I think he felt that I had shoved him out to pasture.” The elder Zanuck would be ousted a year later.

“It wasn’t easy because he founded the company,” says Zanuck. “But I’m glad that I went first. I wouldn’t have wanted to be there when he left and I would’ve fought to the death if anybody laid a hand on him while I was around.”

Compared to that time, the Zanuck of today is the unflappable eminence gris. “Dick has mellowed out over the years,” confirms director William Friedkin, whose “French Connection” Zanuck greenlit in his waning days as Fox studio chief. “He used to get into bar fights. He would get in a beef with someone, haul them off and slug ’em. I was with him on a number of occasions and saw this happen.

“Dick has learned a great deal of anger management; a large part has to do with the great woman he married. Lili has mellowed him and smoothed out his rough edges.”

Tim Burton now talks about the “calming influence” of Zanuck. “I’ve worked with a lot of people who like to create chaos so they can solve the chaos,” says Burton. “He’s not one of those people. It’s amazing that someone who’s been through as much as he’s been through remains as passionate and optimistic about the whole thing.”

In a way, Zanuck has lived nine lives, and, like a cat, has managed to land on his feet every time a crisis has threatened to derail his career. Even as he and Brown emerged, defeated from that Fox boardroom proxy battle in 1970, Universal’s Lew Wasserman and Warner Bros.’ Ted Ashley were ready to snatch them up. They went with Ashley, with Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” and Fried
kin’s “The Exorcist” being developed on their watch.

After they left Warners to form the Zanuck-Brown Co. in 1972, they helped resurrect Universal from the doldrums, beginning with 1973 pic Oscar winner “The Sting,” which they executive produced, and continuing with Steven Spielberg’s feature debut, “The Sugarland Express” (1974), and his follow-up, “Jaws” (1975).

Universal’s Sid Sheinberg might have been Spielberg’s mentor, but Zanuck was responsible for getting his first movie made. “I had two requirements (for making ‘Sugarland’),” recalls Spielberg. “One was that a strong producer produce me, and the second was I had to cast a star (Goldie Hawn) in one of the three principal roles.”

Spielberg describes Zanuck as “a director’s producer. He always feels his job is to protect the director. Having run a studio for many years, he understood the corporate pressure put on filmmakers and yet he still turned out to be the filmmaker’s best friend.”

Zanuck pushed Spielberg for “Jaws” when Wasserman thought the young director was too green for such a logistically difficult film, and protected him when it mushroomed to twice its original $4.5 million budget. “I said to the (studio suits) who were threatening to come, ‘If I see one Lear jet coming into Martha’s Vineyard airport, we’re going to stop shooting,'” says Zanuck.

Lili Zanuck, who joined the Zanuck/Brown production team on 1985’s “Cocoon” when she brought the property to their attention, says “obviously a lot of the ways I produce I learned from Dick.” But it wasn’t until she got behind the camera to direct 1991’s “Rush” that she learned to appreciate the environment Zanuck fosters on a set.

“As a director, my value of a producer was pretty incredible,” she says. “(As producers) we’ve always found our own material, developed it, found a director and, at that point, you turn it over to some degree. At that point it’s your responsibility to protect the integrity of the project and protect the director from any interference that compromises it it any way.”

If Lili learned the ropes from her husband, then Zanuck and Brown learned from the previous generation. “My film school was Darryl Zanuck, and so was Dick’s,” says Brown. “We learned that a movie depended on four words: story, story, story and story.”

While Zanuck’s oeuvre as a producer reveals the usual quotient of popcorn pictures, it’s also distinguished by a preponderance of entertainments that wouldn’t appeal to today’s target demographic. He dismisses the notion that he’s ever felt responsible for social conscientiousness in his filmmaking, a weight that his father took on with such movies as “How Green Was My Valley,” “The Snake Pit” and “Gentlemen’s Agreement. “I think my father felt that responsibility,” says Zanuck, “and used his art fom as an instructional tool.”

But a select look at Zanuck’s films reveals a topicality that can’t be ignored: the third act of “Compulsion” (1959) is a passionate argument against the death penalty; “The Chapman Report” mirrors the nation’s growing sexual awakening; and “Driving Miss Daisy” is a nuanced, if mild-mannered portrait of race relations in the South, and a ripe showcase for its two actors, Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy.

In choosing projects, Brown says they relied on “our guts, not focus groups, not research.”

This criteria might be deemed anachronistic in this day and age, when filmmaking by committee is de rigueur and the studio system of yore takes on the halo of nostalgia. “The culture has changed, obviously,” says Zanuck, “and a lot of the fun of it is gone. It’s more bottom-line stuff. I don’t want to sound foolish, but when I was running a studio, all pictures cost relatively the same — within a million or two of each other.”

Zanuck is talking about the $5 million-$10 million dollar range of his Fox days, when “MASH” was on the low end and “Patton” on the high. “There was no committee and there were no development executives,” he says. “I was the committee. And we didn’t buy anything we didn’t make.” (Even in the era of bloated blockbusters, 1989’s “Miss Daisy” cost $7.5 million, and ended up being one of Warner Bros.’ most profitable films.)

But Zanuck isn’t one to wallow in the past. He looks forward to the opening of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which he describes as “Tim (Burton) at his best and Johnny Depp at his wackiest and bizarre.”

If he wasn’t so enterprising and hands-on — somebody who’s constantly on the set and who never phones it in — he might’ve been put out to pasture himself. Despite the myriad levels of today’s media conglomerates, and answering to executives who couldn’t carry his running shoes, Zanuck is ever the captain of industry — so much so that when asked to point to a career peak, he continues to look forward.

“I’ve always been a positive person and I always think the best is yet to come,” he says. “I’ve actually fallen in love with the pictures I’m not so proud of, because you’ve put as much time and effort into those as the ones that are winners. Every picture is a renaissance in a way.”

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