Dick Zanuck turned 70 last year, and maybe a hint of relaxation has appeared in the terrific drive, authority, American handsomeness and chronic decisiveness that his great, feared yet beloved father, Darryl F., instilled in him.
Still, the jokes about the son who got the big job are still made. Wiseacres know that just as once Darryl hired Dick to run the studio, so dad also fired him. And in the history of the business, saying “Zanuck” still means only one person. So maybe it’s worth stressing that whereas Darryl had a legitimate claim on the picture Oscar for “How Green Was My Valley,” “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “All About Eve,” Dick can claim “The Sound of Music,” “Patton,” “The French Connection,” “The Sting” and “Driving Miss Daisy” — with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” still in the running.
Now, I know that some of those Fox pictures from the ’60s had many hands attached (and Darryl was still studio president), but those working there at the time recollect how important Dick was. And I do not mean to suggest that all those best pictures are impeccable. I would not ask anyone to sit through “Gentleman’s Agreement” tonight — if they will let me out of having to see “Driving Miss Daisy” again. (Emphatically decent and liberal in their time, they have not aged well.)
Equally, there are fine pictures that never got a nomination. Darryl could claim scores. But Dick approved and watched over “Pretty Poison,” “The Sugarland Express” and “Mulholland Falls,” all of which remain excellent entertainments — and something more. He made that “failure” “Wild Bill,” which now looks like “Deadwood” in a premature dream.
What I am saying is that while no one begrudges Darryl his three Irving Thalberg awards — (he got the first one in 1937, and then again in 1944 and 1950), because he played the classic mogul from one end of his croquet stick to the tip of his cigar, and because he was a studio man — still Richard Darryl Zanuck (who shares his Thalberg with David Brown — they did a film we haven’t mentioned yet, “Jaws”) is quite something.
We know from biographies that it was a tough and privileged upbringing. Dick was born December 1934. That was the very year that Zanuck’s new company 20th Century (founded with Joe Schenck) merged with the old Fox outfit. I have never met the Zanucks, but I have known the sons of David O. Selznick very well: DOS’ move to independence in 1935 (between the birth of the two sons) guaranteed a life of Beverly Hills advantage, huge sentimental gestures and a good deal of actual parental neglect — or the father being obsessed with doing something else.
Dick probably saw more of his father than the Selznick boys, and may have wished for less. Dad was fierce, competitive and a disciplinarian. They played games (croquet and badminton) in such a spirit that the kid earned every point. Later on, as the boy began to rise in the business, being the boss’s son was not really a favor, for it meant that this boss was determined to outstrip him at every move.
The boy went to prep school and Stanford, and he was still in his teens when Dad took off on his Bella Darvi infatuation. (The actress lived in a house on the Zanuck property until the weary mother, Virginia, threw her out. But Darryl followed.) It’s a Hollywood pattern where we have learned irony and kindness perhaps in watching a Michael Douglas handle a Kirk.
It only needs to be said that, despite immense provocation, Dick was always patient, long suffering, loyal and a Zanuck. Don’t forget the title of Mel Gussow’s Darryl biography — “Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking.” No one would have had to live by that tough rule more than Dick.
Not every mogul’s son has honored the code, or proved as effective when nepotism shaped his career. Dick Zanuck produced “Compulsion” for dad when he was only 25, and it’s still a strong, worthy movie, with 10 great minutes from Orson Welles, and performances from Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman that took the acting prize at Cannes (the three shared the laurel that year). Of course, “Sanctuary” was a dud (but who has filmed Faulkner well?) and “The Chapman Report” (by George Cukor) is full of great scenes.
Thereafter, for the best part of 20 years, Dick was dad’s appointment and David Brown’s brother-in-arms — the role of the discreet, sophisticated Brown as a buffer must have been enormous. Fox was in chaos after “Cleopatra.” Darryl returned, in the spirit of a MacArthur, and at 30 Dick was in effective charge of production at the studio in Los Angeles. In his caustic book, “The Studio,” John Gregory Dunne portrays Dick as a tense perfectionist hanging on as the movie world changed. And with dad always likely to be on the phone or at the office door with a new female discovery, it must have been quite a show.
Then in the early ’70s, Zanuck-Brown moved into independence (at Universal first) and the enormous success of “The Sting” and “Jaws.” Those films look obvious now, yet the latter especially was close to a disaster so many times, and so out of budgetary control, that Dick could have hired a shoal of ugly fish to bite his own nails. The film worked, and with Lew Wasserman’s marketing campaign it changed the business.
That the success was so perilous was proved in time by the fatuity of “Jaws 2.” By then the team was independent and they took their chances — “Cocoon” was a smash, while “Neighbors” wasn’t. Yet, to this day, I’d say that the Thomas Berger novel was a brilliant producer’s hunch. It might have worked.
So Dick Zanuck is a veteran and a revered figure, still patient with Zanuck jokes and still eager to find good material. He is his father’s son, not so much in the craze for the Bella Darvis and Juliette Grecos, but in the clear dedication to one idea until you get it right. How else do you explain a guy who was married first to Lili (Gentle), then to Linda (Harrison) and then to Lil Fini? If only he had had the luck to produce Warren Beatty’s “Lilith”!
(David Thomson is the author of “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film” and most recently “The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood.”)