Motion picture producer and executive Darryl F. Zanuck, who died Saturday night in Palm Springs, Calif., at the age of 77, was a dynamic and indefatigable film industry leader who spent almost three decades in charge of film-making operations at 20th Century-Fox.
Mr. Zanuck had entered the Desert Hospital on Oct. 28 suffering from pneumonia. A month later it was announced that he was in critical condition. According to a spokesman for 20th Centure-Fox, Mr. Zanuck died of complications from pneumonia. His wife, Virginia Fox Zanuck, was at his side. Married in 1924, the Zanucks separated in 1956 but reconciled in recent years.
Mr. Zanuck is survived by two daughters, Darrylin Pineda and Susan Savineau; by his son Richard, a prominent film producer who serviced as production chief and then president of 20th Century-Fox when Mr. Zanuck agreed to return to the troubled company in the role of chief executive officer in 1962; and by 14 grandchildren.
Shirles Temple Black, the principal box-office asset of 20th Century-Fox during its early years, recalled her former boss as "a fine playmate and a good friend." Her description of Mr. Zanuck as "certainly one of the greatest" is certain to be widely echoed among former associates and industry veterans. Though not one of the first-generation Hollywood empire builders, Mr. Zanuck was the last of a dominant, pace-setting breed, the last of the authoritative and influential movie studio founders and chieftains.
His achievements during almost seven years as the procuction supervisor at Warner Bros. included such landmark entertainments as "The Jazz Singer," "Disraeli," "Forty-Second Street," "Little Caesar," "The Public Enemy and "I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang."
When he left Warners after a dispute in 1933, he quickly succeeded with the newly organized 20th Century Films, producing 18 features in as many months, 17 of them box-office hits, including a 1935 nominee for best film, "Les Miserables."
Mr. Zanuck became the first vice prisident incharge of production at 20th Century and declining Fox Film Corporation, which nevertheless possessed one of the most extensive theater chains in the country. Over the next two decades, three of the films personally produced by Mr. Zanuck won the Academy Award as best motion picture: "How Green Was My Valley" in 1941, "Gentleman's Agreement" in 1947 and "All About Eve" in 1950.
Several other characteristic, prestigious Zanuck productions were nominated for the awards: "In Old Chicago" in 1937, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1938, "The Grapes of Wrath" in 1940, the trio of "Heaven Can Wait," "The Ox-Bow Incident," and "The Song of Bernadette' in 1943, "Wilson" in 1944, "The Razor's Edge" in 1946, "The Snake Pit" in 1948, both "Twelve O'Clock High" and "A Letter to Three Wives" in 1949, and "Decision Before Dawn" in 1951. The epic recreation of the D-Day Invasion, "The Longest Day," also won Mr. Zanuck, then an independent producer, a best film nomination in 1962.
Mr Zanuck was the very first recipient of the Academy's Irving Thalberg Memorial Award, given to "creative producers whose body of work reflects a consistently high quality of motion picture production." He was the only producer to receive the award on three occasions: in 1957, 1944 and 1950. (Producer Hal B. Wallis was a two-time recipient, but the bylaws were eventually changed to make it impossible to win the Thalberg more than once).
Mr. Zanuck was born Sept. 5, 1902, in a room of the only hotel -- the Le Grande -- in Wahoo, Neb. His father, Frank Zanuck, was the hotel manager. His mother, Louise Torpin Zanuck, was the daughter of the hotel's owner, the most prosperous and respected gentleman of nearby Oakdale, Neb.
An older brother, Donald, was killed in an accident when Darryl Francis Zanuck was still an infant. Mr. Zancuk's parents had no other children, and their acrimonious marriage, undermined by the tragic death of their first son, the mother's ill health and the father's compulsive gambling, ended in divorce in 1908.
Seeking a climate that would ease her tubercular condition, Mr. Zanuck's mother moved to Los Angeles, where she remarried. Mr. Zanuck recalled his stepfather, an accountant named Norton, as an evil-tempered, Bible-carrying drunkard. At the age of 8 the boy was sent to a boarding school, Page Military Academy. He spent the school year in Los Angeles and summers with his maternal grandparents in Oakdale until the age of 13, when his mother was persuaded to let him remain in Oakdale.
This boyhood period in Los Angeles evidently gave Mr. Zanuck his first taste of film making. He recalled playing hooky frequently to watch the shooting at the Kalem Company lot in sububan Edendale. When he was seven, he was recruited from the group of onlookers to play the role of an Indian maiden.
A robust and enterprising youth, Mr. Zanuck devoted more time to sports, hunting and commercial ventures (for a time he leased trapping rights to other kids in Oakdale) than classroom study. Fired with patriotic enthusiasm during World War I, he enlisted in the army at the age of 14 and eventually served under fire as an infantry company runner on the Belgian front.
Still only 16 when he was discharged from the service, Mr. Zanuck lingered briefly in Oakdale and then returned to Los Angeles in hopes of becoming a successful pulp writer. While the rejection slips accumulated, he made ends meet by boxing, catching rivets at a shipyard, starting several businesses that failed and writing advertising copy. One slogan, composed for A. F. Foster, the inventor and manufacturer of Yuccatone Hair Restorer, a "wonder" tonic combining alcohol and yucca juice, said: "You've Never Seen a Bald-Headed Indian."
Mr. Zanuck joined a L.A. Athletic Club as a way of gaining access to people in the movie business. His application initially was rejected on the mistaken anti-Semitic assumption that someone named Zanuck must be Jewish. During his heyday at 20th Century-Fox Mr. Zanuck was often presumed to be Jewish, although he and Walt Disney were the two WASP tycoons at the summit of the movie business. Later, Mr. Zanuck took the initiative of adapting "Gentleman's Agreement" to the screen over the objections of several Jewish colleagues, who feared that a movie that attacked anti-Semitism would merely stir up the anti-Semites.
Shunned by most club members as a young nuisance, Mr. Zanuck was befriended by Raymond Griffith, then a star of silent comedies and later a producer at 20th Centure-Fox. Mr. Zanuck's untiring literary effort had been rewarded with a few sales to magazines, and one of the stories had been acquired by a film company. However, a trend toward hiring established authors as screenwriters had him worried. Griffith suggested that he simply become an "established" author by writing a book.
Mr. Zanuck didn't have time to write a book, so he assembled one out of three unsold scenarios and an extended melodramatic testimonial to Yuccatone. Foster, the Yuccatone king, agreed to pay for the publication. This literary curiosity, entitled "Habit: A Thrilling Yarn That Starts Where Fiction Ends and Life Begins," was published by the Los Angeles Times Mirror in 1923. Mr. Zanuck sent engraved announcement and complimentary copies to the movie companies. The scheme was a great success: "Habit" was purchased for $11,000, and three of its four episoded were eventually filed.
Moreover, Mr. Zanuck found his first steady movie empolyment as a gagwriter with Max Sennett. His friendship with a young comedy director, Mal St. Clair, led to an important film-making partnership, as well as his introduction to actress Virginia Fox. Mr. Zanuck pursued Miss Fox avidly for six months, and they were married on Jan. 24, 1924. A few months later Mr. Zanuck and St. Clair were signed by Jack Warner to make the second Rin Tin Tin adventure, "Find Your Man." Its success earned them responsibility for the Rin Tin Tin series over the next two years.
Mr. Zanuck also began to take on a hefty amount of the Warner work load. The late Jack Warner recalled that "he could write 10 times faster than an ordinary man. He worked Saturdays, Sundays and nights. He could leave on Friday and come back on Monday with a script." When a stockholder complained that Warner expenses must have been exaggerated because Mr. Zanuck appeared to be the only writer on the lot, he began doing screenplays under three different pseudonyms: Melville Crossman, Gregory Rogers and Mark Canfield. Warner referred to these phatoms as "three Charming Fellows."
By 1927 Mr. Zanuck had become so indispensable that he was installed as head of production at Warners. His boss advised, "Even if you don't need glasses, get some window panes and grow a mustache. It'll give you a little age." By the time he was an elder statesman of the industry Mr. Zanuck had become readily identified with dark glasses, a fuzzy mustache and an ever-present cigar.
While supervising the Warners output, which ran as high as 60 features a year, Mr. Zanuck was an intimate party to all the stuido's important innovations of the late '20s and early '30s: the talkie revolution with "The Jazz Singer" and "The Lights of New York"; the popular historical biographies starring George Arliss that began with "Disraeli"; the advent of the Depression musical with "Forty-Second Street"; the advent of the gangster cycle with "Little Caesar" and "The Public Enemy"; the advent of the crusading social-problem melodrama with "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang."
Mr. Zanuck sustained these forms when he began his long tenture at 20th Century-Fox. Although child star Shirley Temple remained the new company's bread-and-butter attraction through 1938, the Zanuck stamp was indelibly printed on movies like "Lloyds of London," "Suez," "Jesse James," "In Old Chicago," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "On the Avenue," "The Grapes of Wrath," "How Green Was My Valley" and "The Dolly Sisters." The films were a mixture of history, Americana, song-and-dance and social concern, often more outspoken than the work of his rivals but invariably calculated for broad popular acceptance.
Elia Kazan, who directed his first feature, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," at Fox during World War Ii and later two of the social-problem melodramas, "Gentleman's Agreement" and "Pinky," that established the studio as a postwar trendsetter in movie subject matter, has characterized Mr. Zanuck as "a man of the people . . . a very good Geiger counter . . . If something was being felt, he felt it."
In Kazan's estimation, Mr. Zanuck was also "a man of liberal instincts more than intellect. I don't think he read anything except scripts, simply because he was too busy. He was not a snob. He enjoyed his money and behaved with some carelessness toward other people's opinions . . . I have no complaints about him except that his basic taste is at all costs to make something that the audience will like . . . He nevr wavered, he never talked behind your back, he was supportive."
Mr. Zanuck confirmed this assessment in a memo to the producer of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," Louis Lighton, on the subject of Kazan. According to Mel Gussow in his biograpy of Mr. Zanuck, "Don't Say Yes Until I Finish Talking," the stuido chief feared that in Kazan's "searching for illusive moods and inner emotional motivations there is the danger that we may talk ourselves into a perfect psychological story that is emotionally magnificent but lacking the true elements of entertainment that will appeal to the masses . . . I am naturally suspicious of deep thinkers in relation to motion pictures. They sometimes think so deep they miss the point."
Mr. Zanuck exercised his control over the content and style of Fox product by sustaining a six-day work week that typically began in the late morning and ended at 3 or 4 a.m. in the studio screening room. The work day was largely devoted to extensive story analysis of scripts in progress and extensive screening and reediting of films in production. Many of Mr. Zanuck's former associates consider boundless energy, organizational skill and editorial acumen his key atributes as a successful executive and producer.
Screenwriter Philip Dunne described him as "the best working producer in the history of our trade. He was the boss, but he always treated you as an equal in discussion. . . As an editor he had few weaknesses. tHe never lost sight of the basic point of the picture."
Otto Preminger, who began a successful directing career after making "Laura" a Fox in 1944, recalled Mr. Zanuck as "the personification of everything American. He was terribly efficient, outspoken. He is probably the most organized executive that ever existed. His capacity for work at that time was tremendous."
The same capacity was evidently discernible in Mr. Zanuck at play. Olivia de Havilland has testified that the frequently cutthroat weekend croquet matches at the Zanuck's Palm Springs estate, Ric-Su-Dar, offered an ideal opportunity to see the producer in total strategic command. Mr. Zanuck was an avid polo player until he suffered a facial injury in a match in 1941. His office and home were prominently decorated with the trophies from several big-game safaris with Mrs. Zanuck, also an enthusiastic hunter and crack shot.
An early supporter of American intervention in World War Ii, Zanuck supervised a series of training films for the Signal Corps and spent some time in North Africa shooting a combat documentary, "At the Front." His appearance in the film sporting a tommy gun earned the wrath of several Congressmen, including Sen. Harry S. Truman of Missouri. The heat subsided when he went on inactive duty and returned to Fox.
A close friendship with Republican presidental candidate Wendell Wilkie seems to have inspired one of the labors of love of Mr. Zanuck's career, the ponderous biographical epic of 1944, "Wilson." He was greatly disappointed when it failed to catch on with the public and then failed to win the Academy Award. Accepting the Oscar three years later for "Gentleman's Agreement," he couldn't resist saying, "Thank you, but I should have won it for "Wilson."
Fox's popular and critical success in the late '40s and early '50s indicated that, the rejection of "Wilson" aside, Zanuck had returned from a war with rejuvenated energy and a timely outlook. His enthusiasm evidently eaned after the successful transformation to CinemaScope with "The Robe" in 1953. Three years later he left the studio and left his wife, embarking on a European exile that involved him in a series of highly publicized liaisons (with Bella Darvi, Juliette Greco and Irina Demick) and a number of misbegotten independent productions ("The Sun Also Rises," "The Roots of Heaven").
He emerged in 1962 as the successful producer of "The Longest Day" and the man who could rescue Fox from the disarray created by several lackluster years and the exorbitant production costs on "Cleopatra." Against some board opposition, Mr. Zanuck agreed to return, installing his son Richard as vice president in charge of production. Severe economies and the receipts from "The Longest Day" saw the company narrowly through. When "The Sound of Music" became the great box ofice hit and Oscar winner of 1965, the Zanucks appeared to have put Fox back on top again.
The failure of big-budget films patterned after "The Longest Day" and "The Sound of Music" -- "Tora! Tora! Tora!" and "Star!" among others -- plunged the company into new financial trouble at the end of the decades. The success of Zanuck projects like "M*A*S*H," "Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid," "Patton" and "The French Connection" couldn't compensate for the big flops. Losses of about $30 million in 1969 and $77 million in 1970 forced Mr. Zanuck to fire his own son.
Eased into the role of chariman emeritus, Mr. Zanuck himself retired to his home in Palm Springs in 1972.