Zanuck swings back to ‘Apes’

Oscarcast producer revisiting familiar territory

Laughing that “It’s like I’m in my own time warp,” Richard Zanuck has signed on as producer of Twentieth Century Fox’s “Planet of the Apes.”

The traveling-full-circle image is reminiscent of the ending of the original “Planet of the Apes,” with astronaut Charlton Heston discovering he’s landed on the Earth of the future: Zanuck was president of production at Fox when the 1968 film and the first of its four sequels, “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” were made.

Zanuck and his wife, Lili Fini Zanuck, are producing this year’s Oscarcast. While he has sometimes paired with her and other partners in producing films, Zanuck said he will be the sole producer on “Apes.”

The signing of the high-profile Zanuck is another sign of the priority the project has at Fox, which is aiming to start production in the fall for a summer 2001 release. Tim Burton is directing from a script by Bill Broyles.

Said 20th Century Fox Film Group President Tom Rothman: “This is a big film with a very very significant director. (Zanuck) is a pro’s pro and there’s the karmic unity of the fact he was here when the series started. There’s a certain poetry to that.”

With a producer in place, the picture should move quickly into re-writing and pre-production. Film is being overseen at Fox by top execs Rothman and Hutch Parker, president of TCF Film Prods.

Original worries

Zanuck — on his car phone as he raced around Los Angeles preparing for Sunday’s Oscars — recalled that he picked up the original “Planet of the Apes” project in turnaround.

“I was intrigued by it but I was worried the audience would laugh at the ape characters.” So Zanuck ordered up a brief test with Edward G. Robinson as Dr. Zaius. Robinson balked at the makeup (and was replaced by Maurice Evans), but the test worked and the pic launched one of the most successful film series ever.

He wouldn’t discuss the particulars of the new film’s plot or its relationship to the previous pics, but said, “Our objective is to make a very entertaining picture that does have substance and has characters — human and ape — that people will care about.”

Fox family ties

“Apes” will create another important chapter in Zanuck’s own history with Fox. His father was Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck and Richard Zanuck was named head of production at Fox when he was 28 in the early 1960s and held the post for eight years.

Zanuck and his wife won the best-pic Oscar for 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy.” Most recently, the two had a production deal with the studio’s Fox 2000 production unit, but that deal lapsed without producing any pics for Fox.

Zanuck has “Rules of Engagement,” a Paramount film he produced with Scott Rudin, opening April 7.