As studio exec, Richard Zanuck was responsible for greenlighting two highlights in William Friedkin’s directing career: 1971’s “The French Connection” at Fox and 1973’s “The Exorcist” at Warners.
The Zanuck hunch: “Producer Phil D’Antoni had been to every studio with ‘French Connection’ and everyone turned it down. We got a call from Dick Zanuck when he was at 20th Century Fox. He said to us, ‘ya know, I think I’m going to be fired shortly, so I’m going to greenlight this movie for $1.5 million. Just get good actors…’ Dick had a hunch that there was something in ‘Connection’ which was going to work. Initially, there was nothing much to like about the script. It wasn’t a known story. Gene Hackman wasn’t originally cast in the role of Popeye Doyle. We offered it to Peter Boyle, but he turned it down because he wanted more romantic parts. We landed Hackman thanks to his agent Sue Mengers. Back then, Hackman was known as a great supporting actor. The only lead role he had up to that point was “I Never Sang for My Father.” Dick was right. He was fired before the picture came out… ‘Connection’ came out of nowhere. Fox was broke. They ran the film as a double feature in certain theaters because it was the only release they had. Fox’s new management was exalted by the film’s results…Dick always felt that ‘Connection’ was a success. I never knew it at the time. To me, it was like doing a B-picture.”
“French Connection” scored $52 million at the domestic B.O. and went on to win 5 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Hackman).
Definition of a producer: “Dick is one of the most knowledgeable producers in town. The word ‘producer’ has lost a lot of weight because there are so many guys now who aren’t involved in a film that call themselves that. Dick is a true producer. He generally controls the material, hires the director, and is involved in post production…On ‘Rules of Engagement’ Dick took all the weight with the studio. I almost never knew what the studio had in mind. I would only hear from Dick what they thought about rushes or what needed to be picked up…I’ve never seen a producer work so many corners as Dick does. I would love to work with him again. I would give up money to work with him again…Dick fights for what he believes in…He doesn’t bullshit people.”
Anger management: “Dick has mellowed out over the years. He use to get into bar fights. He would get in a beef with someone, haul them off and slug ’em. I was with him on a number of occasions and saw this happen…Dick has learned a great deal of anger management; a large part has to do with the great woman he married. Lili has mellowed him and smoothed out his rough edges.”