Producer and former studio executive David Brown, who produced Oscar-winning films including “The Sting” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” died Sunday, after a long illness, at the Manhattan home he shared with his wife, Helen Gurley Brown. He was 93.
Partnered for many years with onetime studio boss Richard D. Zanuck, Brown produced hits of the 1970s and ’80s including “Jaws,” “Cocoon” and “The Verdict,” his personal favorite.
A courtly man, fastidious about his attire, Brown was a voracious reader and dedicated storyteller. Few commanded his knowledge of studio lore and his talent for summoning up stories about the Hollywood titans of generations ago. He and Zanuck seemed an ideal team, given his zeal for writing and Zanuck’s dealmaking prowess.
Few traveled as gracefully between the publishing and filmmaking worlds as did Brown, and he seemed at home in both environments.
“He had a wonderful, jam-packed exciting life. He worked right up until the very end, trying to get films made, as well as plays on Broadway, which was his real passion,” said Zanuck.
“He specialized in material; that’s where he had excelled, starting as an editor,” remembered Zanuck, who spoke to him nearly every day for more than 40 years. “It was a remarkable friendship.”
Born in New York and educated at Stanford and Columbia, Brown started his professional career as a reporter, horoscope writer, drama critic and as editor-in-chief of Liberty magazine and managing editor at Cosmopolitan.
In 1959, he married his third wife, Gurley Brown, working closely with her to come up with the title for her bestselling book “Sex and the Single Girl” and helping relaunch Cosmopolitan with the single-girl focus.
Brown and his wife entertained regally in Hollywood and New York, and theirs was a salon much in favor among stars and filmmakers. Gurley Brown readily credited her husband with some of Cosmopolitan’s more salacious cover lines, and the two would recite them for friends, knowing they’d elicit laughter and admiration.
His pairing with Zanuck, son of 20th Century Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck, was one of the longer-lived production associations in Hollywood. The two had a history that began in the 1950s, shortly after Brown caught the eye of Darryl F. Zanuck and joined Fox in 1951 as a story editor. He then moved up to head the story department. In 1967, Brown became VP of story operations at Fox and then exec VP of creative affairs.
During their joint tenure, Fox turned out “The French Connection,” “Patton,” “The Sound of Music,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “MASH,” as well as costly disappointments “Doctor Dolittle,” “Star” and “Hello Dolly.”
Then, in 1970, Zanuck was ousted by his father in a power struggle, which saw Brown lose his job, too. In early 1971, Warner Bros. hired Zanuck for its No. 2 position; Brown came in as an exec VP.
Both Zanuck and Brown sued Fox and, in 1973, agreed to a deferred compensation settlement that was a fraction of their demands but a victory nonetheless.
Brown and Zanuck remained at WB for only 18 months before launching the Zanuck/Brown Co. in 1972.
“We realized we could have much more fun when we formed Zanuck-Brown and moved to Universal,” Zanuck explained.
Universal won its first best picture Oscar in many years with Zanuck-Brown’s “The Sting,” which grossed more than $156 million in the U.S. The pair also produced Steven Spielberg’s first film, “The Sugarland Express,” and Clint Eastwood’s “The Eiger Sanction.” In 1975, they hit paydirt with “Jaws,” which became the highest-grossing film for some time.
According to Brown, Spielberg at first didn’t want to do the movie about a giant shark terrorizing beachgoers in a summer resort town.
“He said, ‘There are movies and there are films, and I want to make films.’ And we said, ‘Well if this works, you can make films.’?” The movie set the standard for summer blockbusters and helped launch Spielberg’s run of hits. Brown and Zanuck produced “Jaws II” in 1978.
In 1980 Zanuck and Brown returned to Fox, where, over the next three years, they turned out the Oscar-nommed “The Verdict” and had another success with “Cocoon.” In 1983, they rejoined Warner Bros. (They eventually produced “Cocoon II.”)
Brown split with Zanuck in 1988 and launched the Manhattan Project production shingle. “He wanted to stay in New York and produce for Broadway,” said Zanuck. They remained close friends and reteamed for Robert Altman’s “The Player” in 1992. One of their last pics as a producing team, the 1989 “Driving Miss Daisy,” scored a best picture Oscar.
Zanuck and Brown were awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Award at the 1990 Oscars. Among Brown’s other honors were the David O. Selznick lifetime achievement award from the Producers Guild and Showest producer of the year.
During the 1990s, Brown continued to turn out high-profile films such as Rob Reiner’s “A Few Good Men,” “Angela’s Ashes,” “Kiss the Girls” and “Road to Perdition.” His 2000 production “Chocolat” was again Oscar-nommed for best picture. For television, he was exec producer of miniseries “A Season in Purgatory” and two movies for HBO.
Brown produced several plays, including Broadway musical “Sweet Smell of Success” as well as “Tru,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “A Few Good Men” and “The Cemetery Club.”
A prolific short story writer, Brown wrote five books of memoirs and humorous essays.
Helen Gurley Brown is his sole survivor.
Funeral services will be held at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, 1076 Madison Ave., New York.
Peter Bart contributed to this report