Richard D. Zanuck, Hollywood producer of ‘Jaws’ and ‘Miss Daisy,’ dies at 77


Producers Richard D. Zanuck, and Lili Fini Zanuck accept Oscars for best picture of the year for "Driving Miss Daisy" at the 62nd annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles in 1990. (REED SAXON/AP)
July 14, 2012

Richard D. Zanuck, who grew up as the son of a Hollywood titan and went on to become the youngest movie studio chief in history and an acclaimed film producer in his own right — with such hits as “Jaws,” “The Sting” and “Driving Miss Daisy” — died July 13 at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., after a heart attack. He was 77.

His publicist, Jeff Sanderson, announced his death.

The only son of Darryl F. Zanuck, the longtime head of the 20th Century-Fox studio and an original Hollywood tycoon, Mr. Zanuck grew up with the movie business as a birthright.

He accompanied his father to the studio as a child, was reading scripts by the time he was in the sixth grade, attended story conferences and watched the rough cuts of films in production.

“We never had a typical father-son relationship,” Mr. Zanuck told London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper about his father in 2008. “We never tossed a ball to one another or anything like that; it was always more of a business thing. But to begin with, at least, he was very supportive.”

The elder Zanuck left 20th Century-Fox in the 1950s and later regained control of the company in 1962. He asked his son to make a list of executives to lead the Hollywood studio. Richard Zanuck handed him a sheet of paper on which he had written one word: “Me.”

At 27, he was put in charge of the studio, which was reeling from overspending on “Cleopatra” and other box-office bombs. Mr. Zanuck shut it down for more than two years before restoring its fortunes with “The Sound of Music” in 1965.

Under his leadership, the studio pumped out a series of hits in the late 1960s and 1970s. “The Sound of Music,” “Patton” and “The French Connection,” won Academy Awards for best picture, and other hits included “The Planet of the Apes,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “M*A*S*H.”

Amid the successes, there were also failures, and 20th Century-Fox was deeply in debt by 1970. At a meeting of the company’s board of directors just before Christmas that year, Richard Zanuck was fired by his father.

“Afterwards I said goodbye to him and he was so cold,” Mr. Zanuck said in the Daily Telegraph interview.“I was absolutely on the point of tears, but I remember I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Watch out — you’re next.’ ”

Darryl Zanuck lost his job six months later. He died in 1979 at age 77.

Richard Zanuck, meanwhile, went on to form a production company with David Brown, the husband of Cosmopolitan magazine editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown. The two produced a series of commercial and critical successes, including “The Sting” (1973), starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as a pair of likable con men. It won the Oscar for best picture.

In 1974, Mr. Zanuck and Brown hired Steven Spielberg to direct his first full-length movie, “The Sugarland Express.” The next year, the Zanuck-Brown-Spielberg team virtually invented the genre of the summer blockbuster movie with “Jaws,” a thriller about a giant shark lurking off the New England coast.

“It became a milestone movie, but we had no idea when we were on location,” Mr. Zanuck said in 2005.

Computer-generated effects were not commonplace in 1975, and Mr. Zanuck believed that the simpler filmmaking methods of the time helped make “Jaws” such a gripping movie.

“I think if we’d had a computerized shark,” he said, “we would have overdone it, and a lot of that suspense and buildup, which was not really intended, would have been lost.”

Mr. Zanuck and Brown later produced “The Verdict” (1982), featuring Paul Newman in one of his strongest roles as a down-on-his-luck lawyer hoping to redeem his career. In 1985, they produced “Cocoon,” in which senior citizens find rejuvenation in a swimming pool energized by extraterrestrial forces.

In 1988, Mr. Zanuck launched a new production company with his third wife, Lili Fini Zanuck. Their first film together, “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989), about an elderly Southern lady’s life with her black chauffeur, won four Oscars, including best picture. (Mr. Zanuck and his father are the only father-son duo to win the best picture Oscar.)

But “Driving Miss Daisy” almost didn’t get made.

“We went down on our knees and everybody turned us down,” Mr. Zanuck told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. “We went to a group of dentists — they were going to use it as a tax shelter, and they turned us down! But we hung on, got the picture made and it went on to be hugely successful. You’d think after that experience people might pay more attention, but we still have to beg.”

Richard Darryl Zanuck was born Dec. 13, 1934, in Los Angeles. His Nebraska-born father broke into the movie business in the 1920s and accepted an Oscar at the first Academy Awards ceremony for producing “The Jazz Singer” (1927), the first “talkie” motion picture. His mother was Virginia Fox, a silent-film actress.

As a child, Richard had a life of privilege, with birthdays that featured elephants in the backyard and visits from Hollywood stars. Soon after he turned 14, his father arranged for him to learn about the facts of life, in the most direct way possible, from a prostitute.

Mr. Zanuck was a star athlete at a military school and graduated in 1956 from Stanford University, where he majored in English. He served in the Army before going to work in Hollywood. He produced his first film at 24 — the tense crime drama “Compulsion,” starring Orson Welles.

His first two marriages, to actresses Lili Gentle and Linda Harrison, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 33 years, Lili Fini Zanuck of Beverly Hills; two daughters from his first marriage, Virginia Zanuck and Janet Zanuck; two sons from his second marriage, Harrison Zanuck and Dean Zanuck; and at least nine grandchildren.

At the 1991 Academy Awards, Mr. Zanuck and his onetime producing partner, Brown, received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for achievement in film.

Mr. Zanuck continued to make movies until the end of his life, including “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005), “Alice in Wonderland” (2010) and “Dark Shadows” (2012), all with director Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp.

Mr. Zanuck was known as a hands-on producer who went on location to watch his films being made and kept a close eye on daily production.

“A producer, if he’s doing his job, is the creative force,” he said in a 2005 interview on CBS’s “Sunday Morning.” “He doesn’t tell the director how to direct, but he hires the director, hires the writer . . . has picked the story. He’s kind of the grand master of it all.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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