“The English Patient” producer Saul Zaentz has been voted the 33rd recipient of the coveted Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences board of governors. The award will be presented at the March 24 Oscarcast at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium.

Established in 1937, the Thalberg Award is given on an occasional basis to “creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production,” according to Academy rules.

Zaentz already has two Oscar statuettes for producing best picture winners “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and “Amadeus” (1984). His other producing credits include “Three Warriors,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” He was the executive producer of “The Mosquito Coast.”

“It’s thrilling, and it’s also hard to talk about,” Zaentz told Daily Variety from his Bay Area office. “The people who have won it in the past are ones I greatly admire.”

Previous Thalberg recipients include Ray Stark, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, David O. Selznick and Steven Spielberg. The first Thalberg honoree, Darryl F. Zanuck, went on to win the award two more times.

“In a way it’s more important than any other award because it says you didn’t just make one good movie,” said Zaentz, who as a former board of governors member participated in Thalberg elections. “The people who vote on it are genuine heavyweights in every branch. There are as many cinematographers as producers.”

The 1996 Miramax release “The English Patient,” Zaentz’s most recent film, is considered a favorite for Oscar nominations in several categories, including best picture.

Double winners

In the past, there have been six instances of a producer receiving the Thalberg award and the Oscar for best picture in the same year. The most recent was 1952 when Cecil B. DeMille won the Thalberg and his “The Greatest Show on Earth” took best picture.

The other double winners were Selznick, “Gone With the Wind” (1939); Sidney Franklin, “Mrs. Miniver” (1942); Hal B. Wallace, “Casablanca” (1943); Zanuck, “All About Eve” (1950); and Arthur Freed “An American in Paris” (1951).

“Saul is a man of great literary taste, tremendous integrity, and is true to his principles,” said Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax, which released “Patient.” “He cares more about art than commerce and I think the board of governors of the Academy made an outstanding choice in their selection.”

While Zaentz said he could no sooner pick a favorite among the films he produced than pick a favorite among his four children, he noted that “The English Patient” has generated more response, from the general public and within the industry, than any other.

He also said that he and “Patient” director Anthony Minghella are looking for another project to work on together.