'Driving Miss Daisy' producer also shaped 'Jaws' and six Tim Burton films
Richard Zanuck, the son of legendary 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck who carved out his own career as the Oscar-winning producer of “Driving Miss Daisy,” the blockbuster “Jaws” and several Tim Burton films, including “Alice in Wonderland,” died Friday at his home in Los Angeles from a heart attack. He was 77.
Zanuck’s association with Burton — which began with 2001’s “Planet of the Apes,” a remake of the 1968 Fox hit made under Zanuck’s own watch as a high-level executive at the studio in his younger days — would largely define the last decade of his career, spanning six films, including their most recent collaboration, “Dark Shadows,” based on the paranormal TV series of the ’60s. Although the film opened to a disappointing $29.7 million domestically, the film has grossed $233.8 worldwide to date.
Their collective output had generated more than $2 billion in worldwide grosses, with “Alice” alone accounting for about half of that.
When they were making 2005’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Burton talked about Zanuck’s “calming influence.”
“I’ve worked with a lot of people who like to create chaos so they can solve the chaos,” Burton told Variety. “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.”
Zanuck’s last notable non-Burton film, 2008’s “Yes Man,” starring Jim Carrey, grossed $97.7 million domestic and $223.2 worldwide, despite mixed reviews.
Even before he attended his first Oscar ceremony at 7, the business of filmmaking was in Zanuck’s blood. Zanuck would be entertained by stars like Tyrone Power and Orson Welles as frequent guests in his home growing up. “I was practically born on Stage 5 at the studio,” he told Variety in 2005. “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.”
After attending Stanford as a lit major, Zanuck promptly entered the family business. In 1962, at the tender age of 28, he became the youngest production chief in Hollywood when he was appointed by his father as exec VP in charge of production at Fox.
At the time, with the help of executive story editor David Brown — who would eventually become his production partner — Zanuck 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,” recalled Brown, who died in 2010, in a 2005 interview with Variety. “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.”
Working with the silver-tongued Brown, whom Zanuck described to Variety as the “East Coast intellectual” to his own “kid from the beach in Santa Monica,” Zanuck would eventually display a canny nose for material. In choosing projects, Brown said they relied on “our guts, not focus groups, not research.”
“There was no committee and there were no development executives,” Zanuck added at the time. “I was the committee. And we didn’t buy anything we didn’t make.”
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, and Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” and William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” were developed on their watch.
After they left Warners to form the Zanuck-Brown Co. in 1972, they helped bring Universal out of its doldrums, beginning with 1973 Oscar best-picture winner “The Sting,” which they exec produced, and continuing with Steven Spielberg’s feature debut, “The Sugarland Express” (1974), and his follow-up, “Jaws” (1975), largely credited as ushering in the age of the summer blockbuster.
Universal’s Sid Sheinberg may have been Spielberg’s mentor, but Zanuck was responsible for getting his first movie made. “I had two requirements (for making ‘Sugarland’),” recalled Spielberg in 2005. “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 described 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,'” Zanuck said.
A self-described sports fanatic who ran five miles a day even as a septuagenarian, Zanuck exercised an iron-man work ethic. “Dick’s a good athlete and a great competitor,” said Samuel Goldwyn Jr. some years back. Goldwyn, a close friend who knew a thing or two about living in his father’s shadow, added that Zanuck loved to compete: “He does that when he plays tennis, he does that when he runs, he does that when he makes movies.”
At age 70, Zanuck told Variety that he considered himself “too old to retire. 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.”
In an interview with Variety conducted in May, Zanuck offered his definition of a producer at a time when the title has become somewhat amorphous:
“I think there’s been a devaluation of the concept,” he told Variety. “Maybe too many people have used the term ‘producer’ when they weren’t qualified. That’s what the Producers Guild has been fighting for years. I was the chairman of the producers’ branch of the Academy for about 10 years, and we were constantly trying to find ways to prevent this proliferation of credits. A producer should contribute from the very beginning until the very end, in all aspects. I’m there at the set every day, on every shot. Not that the director, particularly Tim (Burton), needs me, but just in case. There are producers who don’t even watch the dailies, who have some contact with the project and get their name slapped on there. That’s what we’ve been trying to get rid of.”
Lili Fini Zanuck, 20 years his junior, married Richard in 1977 and joined the Zanuck/Brown production team on 1985’s “Cocoon” when she brought the property to their attention. She would eventually share the best picture Oscar with her husband on “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989). They collaborated on a number of projects, including producing the 72nd Annual Academy Awards.
Lili once told Variety that “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 fostered on a set.
“As a director, my value of a producer was pretty incredible,” she said. “(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 in 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,” Brown said. “We learned that a movie depended on four words: story, story, story and story.”
Along with the best picture Oscar, Zanuck also was awarded the Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1991 and the Producers Guild of America’s David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993 (both of which he shared with Brown), and together the kudos would constitute the Triple Crown of producer laurels.
At the time of his death, Zanuck was in development on an action-adventure film called “Monsterpocalypse,” which was set up at DreamWorks with Disney slated to distribute. However, DreamWorks, through a spokesperson, told Variety that its option on the property had expired “a few months ago,” with the rights having reverted back to the publisher, Privateer Press.
Zanuck is survived by his wife Lili Fini Zanuck; sons Harrison and Dean; daughters Virginia and Janet; nine grandchildren; and sister Darrylin.