Saul Zaentz, relentless producer of music and film, dies at 92

January 6, 2014

It would be hard to find someone who worked with three-time Oscar-winning movie and music producer Saul Zaentz and came out of it feeling neutral about him.

Some admired him, including director Milos Forman, who won Oscars for two Zaentz films, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and “Amadeus” (1984).

And then there is John Fogerty, songwriter and singer with Creedence Clearwater Revival. He is one of several people and companies who battled Mr. Zaentz in court over various matters, but the showdown with Fogerty was particularly nasty.

“The way I view Saul Zaentz and his henchmen . . . if I was walking down the street and those rattlesnakes were walking towards me, I would give them a wide berth,” Fogerty told the New York Times in 2005.

But there is no denying that Mr. Zaentz was a fierce, independent powerhouse who fought for the projects he loved, even when far bigger companies dismissed them as non-commercial.

Saul Zaentz, producer of "The English Patient," holds on to his Oscar for Best Picture, backstage during the 69th annual Academy Awards in March 1997. (BLAKE SELL/Reuters)

“I don’t worry about what everyone wants to see,” he told the Charlotte Observer in 2003. “I make movies that please a writer, director and myself. I always think there are enough people smart as me and sensitive as me.”

Mr. Zaentz, 92, died Jan. 3 at his home in San Francisco. The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his nephew, Paul Zaentz.

He was a credited producer on nine films, beginning in 1975, after a successful run in the music business. Three of those films, including “Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Amadeus” and “The English Patient” (1997), won best picture Academy Awards.

Saul Zaentz was born Feb. 28, 1921, in Passaic, N.J., to Eastern European Jewish parents. After Army service in World War II, he studied animal husbandry at Rutgers University on the GI Bill, with an eye toward becoming a chicken farmer.

“It was a way to make a living,” he told the newspaper. “I’d be my own boss.”

Working for a bit on an actual chicken farm changed his mind about that, especially because of the long hours. He headed for San Francisco, where he pursued a career in the music business. After working for noted jazz producer Norman Granz, he began working at Fantasy Records, a small label that had recorded several jazz greats.

Mr. Zaentz moved up the ranks to produce records and run various departments, and in 1967, he and investors bought the label.

The most successful band to come out of Fantasy was Creedence Clearwater Revival, fronted by Fogerty. But the relationship between Mr. Zaentz and Fogerty eventually became so toxic — over rights, fees and other matters — that it also pitted band members against one another, and lawsuits flew back and forth.

At one point, Mr. Zaentz filed a defamation lawsuit against Fogerty over the song “Zanz Kant Danz,” which some believed depicted the producer as dishonest and greedy. The parties eventually settled out of court, and Fogerty changed the title of the single to “Vanz Kant Danz.”

With the success he achieved in music, Mr. Zaentz turned to the movie business. Veteran actor Kirk Douglas had been trying to get the Ken Kesey novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” made into a film for years, with no luck. Mr. Zaentz also loved the book — he and the actor’s son, Michael, co-produced, hiring the Czechoslovakian director Forman, who had few credits in the United States.

The film, released in 1975, took five Academy Awards, including for the producers, director and star Jack Nicholson, who played Randle P. McMurphy, a social misfit who causes trouble at a mental institution.

“Amadeus,” with Forman again directing, gave him another hit. Based on the hit Peter Shaffer play, it depicted the rivalry between composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri.

“Amadeus” won eight Oscars.

“The English Patient,” based on the Michael Ondaatje novel, brought home nine Oscars. Mr. Zaentz was vocal about having had to battle various studio executives who wanted to cast the movie with big American stars. Eventually, he found backing with Miramax, which gave him the creative freedom to cast Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche.

Mr. Zaentz told The Times that he put $5.5 million of his own money into the $33 million picture and that he and several actors deferred their salaries. The movie was one of his biggest hits, grossing $232 million worldwide.

At the Oscars ceremony, Mr. Zaentz not only won the best picture award, but also the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in recognition of his accomplishments.

With success in the movie business came more lawsuits. He sued Miramax and its former owner, Disney, over $20 million in profits for “The English Patient.”

One of Mr. Zaentz’s passion projects was bringing to the screen Peter Matthiessen’s novel “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.” Mr. Zaentz pursued the rights and ultimately got to make the movie with director Hector Babenco. It received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.

His last movie was 2006’s “Goya’s Ghosts,” a historical drama directed by Forman that was pummeled by critics and fared poorly at the box office.

— Los Angeles Times

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