David Brown: Film and theatre producer who worked with Spielberg and Altman

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The Independent Online

After David Brown formed an independent production company with Richard Zanuck in 1972, they were responsible for two of the biggest money-making movies, The Sting (1973), which won seven Oscars including Best Film, and Jaws (1975), directed by their protégé, Stephen Spielberg. Brown and Zanuck had been ousted from executive positions at 20th Century-Fox, where Richard's father, Darryl F. Zanuck, had been studio head. They later dissolved their partnership, but still teamed up occasionally, their later films including Robert Altman's 1992 satire of Hollywood, The Player.

While at Fox, Brown had been instrumental in signing Elvis Presley for his first film, Love Me Tender (1956), and later he spotted the talent of the unknown Aaron Sorkin. Brown was so keen to produce a film version of Sorkin's play A Few Good Men that when Sorkin pointed out that the play would be less attractive to a Broadway producer if the film rights had been sold, Brown bought the stage rights as well. A Few Good Men was a hit on stage, starring Tom Hulce and running for over a year, and on screen, starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. Orkin went on to write the acclaimed TV series The West Wing.

Born in Manhattan in 1916 to parents who divorced when he was a child, Brown was raised by his mother. He was educated at Stanford, where he intended to study physics but switched to journalism, and after earning a master's degree from the Columbia School of Journalism he embarked on a successful career in publishing. "He had a great story sense," said Zanuck, "and great connections with publishers and agents."

His first job was writing horoscopes, but he soon established himself as a prolific short story writer, contributing to the Wall Street Journal and Women's Wear Daily, and he also worked as a gossip columnist before serving with the Army in the Second World War. He then wrote for such notable magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, Harper's and Collier's, becoming editor-in-chief of Liberty and then managing editor of Cosmopolitan.

In 1953 Darryl F. Zanuck hired him as a story editor and soon promoted him to head of the scenario department, where under his wing was the young Richard Zanuck, with whom he became friends. Among the films he sanctioned were Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing (1955), The Best Things In Life Are Free (1956), Bus Stop (1956), Ten North Frederick (1958) and Compulsion (1959). Having had two short marriages that ended in divorce, in 1959 he married an advertising copywriter, Helen Gurley. Later, as Helen Gurley Brown, she became famous as the influential editor of Cosmopolitan and the writer of Sex and the Single Girl.

In 1956, Darryl F. Zanuck left Fox to become an independent producer, but six years later, with the studio in financial difficulty due largely to the costs of Cleopatra, he wrested control from Spyros Skouras and became president, appointing his son Richard as vice-president in charge of production. In 1969 Darryl became chairman and Richard be-came president, hiring Brown as executive vice-president of creative operations. In 1970, following a boardroom battle, Darryl fired his son (he himself survived at the studio less than a year). In 1972, Richard resigned from the executive position he had been given at Fox, and he and Brown spent a brief time with Warner Bros before forming an independent production company, persuading Universal to release their product.

Their first joint project was George Roy Hill's The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as slick confidence tricksters in the Twenties (with Scott Joplin's ragtime music a potent element in the film's charm). The following year they produced Steven Spielberg's first feature film as a director, Sugarland Express, starring Goldie Hawn in the true story of a young couple fleeing from cops across Texas in a race to reclaim their son, who has been taken for adoption without their consent. It was followed by Jaws, a superb adaptation of Peter Benchley's best-selling tale of a shark terrorising a New England community. Costing $8.5m dollars to make, it grossed $130m in the US alone.

MacArthur (1977), starring Gregory Peck as the flamboyant Second World War general, and Jaws 2 (1978) were less successful, and another Benchley adaptation, The Island (1980), starring Michael Caine, was disastrous, but the team had hits with Sidney Lumet's The Verdict (1982), a riveting courtroom drama with sterling performances from Paul Newman and James Mason, and Ron Howard's delightful fantasy, Cocoon (1985), for which Don Ameche won an Oscar as one of the senior citizens who discover a real fountain of youth – Ameche's spirited display of break-dancing was a particularly choice moment.

In 1988 Brown and Zanuck dissolved their partnership, though they remained friends and made the Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy (1989), which followed the developing relationship between a crusty old Southern woman (Jessica Tandy) and her black chauffeur (Morgan Freeman). They also made Robert Altman's scathing but funny portrait of power and greed in Hollywood, The Player.

Except for A Few Good Men (1992), the films made by Brown's own company, The Manhattan Project, Ltd, were less impressive at the box office. They included two dull thrillers about a police psychologist played by Morgan Freeman, Kiss The Girls (1997) and Along Came a Spider (2001), and the twee Chocolat (2000), Better received were an exciting end-of-the-world tale of a comet hurtling towards earth, Deep Impact (1998), with a cast headed by Robert Duvall, Freeman, Elijah Wood and Vanessa Redgrave, and an adaptation of Frank McCourt's Pulitzer Prize winning account of a poverty-stricken upbringing in Dublin, Angela's Ashes (1999). Kit Golden, a producer who worked with Brown, said, "He always said his job as a producer was to get the project to the point where it could attract a director. Once the director came aboard, it was the director's picture."

Brown's stage productions included an admired one-man show, Tru, in which Robert Morse evoked Truman Capote, two musical adaptations of movies, Sweet Smell of Success (2002) and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2005), both starring John Lithgow, and an off-Broadway revue based on the songs of Jerry Herman, Showtune (2003).

At the Oscars ceremony in 1990, Brown and Zanuck were presented with the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award. Ever dapper, the moustachioed Brown was particularly noted for his élan and perfect manners, and he wrote a book about the art of living, Brown's Guide to the Good Life: Tears, Fears and Boredom (1987). He followed it with a memoir, Let Me Entertain You (1990), and The Rest Of Your Life is the Best Of Your Life (1991). Aaron Sorkin said on learning of his death, "He was the last great gentleman producer. You're not going to see his kind again."

Tom Vallance

David Brown, producer and journalist: born: Manhattan, New York 28 July 1916; married firstly and secondly (marriages dissolved, one son, one daughter); 1959 Helen Gurley; died Manhattan 1 February 2010.