Richard Zanuck: Film producer responsible for hits including 'Jaws' and 'Driving Miss Daisy'


Click to follow

The son of Darryl F Zanuck, co-founder and one-time production head of 20th Century-Fox, Richard Zanuck successfully escaped his father's shadow by becoming a chief executive at Fox himself, and later producing with David Brown some of Hollywood's most profitable films, including the massive hit, Jaws (1975), which at the time was the highest grossing film ever.

He was a staunch champion of the young and little known Steven Spielberg, and produced the director's first feature film, The Sugarland Express (1974). Spielberg called him "the director's producer" because he protected the director from corporate interference. Zanuck and Brown were executive producers of the Oscar winner The Sting (1973), and later, in partnership with his wife, he produced another Oscar winner, Driving Miss Daisy (1989), as well as six Tim Burton movies, including Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). He and Darryl are the only father and son to have both received Best Picture Oscars.

Born Richard Darryl Zanuck in Beverly Hills in 1934, he was the only son (he had two sisters) born to Darryl and his wife Virginia Fox, a former leading lady to Buster Keaton. As a child, he grew accustomed to having such stars as Tyrone Power, Sonja Henie and Shirley Temple as guests for his birthday parties at the family's beach house. After attending Harvard Military School, where he was a star athlete, he majored in English Literature at Stanford University. He began his career working in the story department of his father's studio during college holidays.

After graduation, he served in the US Army, rising to the rank of lieutenant. When his father formed his own production company in 1956, working out of Paris, Richard became his vice-president in charge of operations in the US. He was story and production assistant on his father's films Island in the Sun and The Sun Also Rises, and in 1959 he produced his first successful film, Compulsion, the compelling drama based on the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder case in which two college students kill a colleague to prove their superiority. The three leading players, Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman as the youths and Orson Welles as their defence attorney, were given best actor awards as an ensemble at the Cannes Film Festival.

Darryl regained control of Fox in 1962, when the studio was trying to cope with the budget overruns incurred by Cleopatra, and since he did not want to abandon his romantic attachments in Paris, he asked his son to make a list of candidates to head production in Los Angeles. Richard gave him a piece of paper with "Me" written on it, and Zanuck took his advice, making Richard vice president in charge of production at the age of 28. Aware that there would be accusations of nepotism, he said, "I know that Richard is the best person for the job."

One of the first films Richard sanctioned was the enormously successful musical starring Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music (1965). In 1969 Darryl became chairman of the company, and Richard became president ("It takes young, aggressive types to survive," he said), but the following year there was a bitter battle for power, with Richard fired by his father, who was himself forced to retire in 1972.

"There were continual disputes over how the company should be run," said Richard, "and continued suspicion on his part that I wanted to send him out to pasture.Also, when trimming staff, I'd laid off my father's girlfriend."

During his time at Fox, the studio produced a substantial number of hits, including Planet of the Apes (1968), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and M*A*S*H (1969), along with box-office failures such as Dr Dolittle (1967), Star! (1968), Hello, Dolly (1969) and Tora, Tora, Tora (1970).

Richard formed his own production company with David Brown in 1972, releasing through Warners (The Exorcist and Blazing Saddles) and Universal, for whom they made two massive hits, George Roy Hill's Oscar-winning The Sting (1973) and Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975), the first film to break the hundred million dollar mark domestically. The team also produced other hits including The Verdict (1982) starring Paul Newman as an alcoholic lawyer, and Cocoon (1988), Ron Howard's neatly judged fantasy in which a group of seniors are given a new lease of life after encountering aliens on a rescue mission.

In 1988, after amicably splitting with Brown, Zanuck and his wife, Lili Fini Zanuck, formed The Zanuck Company and produced as their first film Driving Miss Daisy, based on Alfred Uhry's one-act play about the relationship between a strong-willed Southern widow and her black chauffeur. The modest film won four Oscars, including best picture and best actress (Jessica Tandy).

Lili Fini Zanuck directed Rush (1991), a powerful depiction of two narcotics cops (Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh) descending into addiction, its intensity enhanced by a fine Eric Clapton musical score. Other Zanuck Company productions included Mulholland Falls (1996), Road to Perdition (2002) and six films directed by Tim Burton and made in London, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Alice in Wonderland (2010).

Their most recent production was Burton's Dark Shadows (2012), an unsuccessful attempt to recapture the potent mixture of soap opera and horror tale that had been a daytime television hit in the late Sixties.At the time of Richard's death, he and his wife were preparing with HBO a television series titled The Decalogue, 10 one-act plays set in modern day Los Angeles, each based on one of the Ten Commandments.

Tom Vallance

Richard Darryl Zanuck, film producer: born Los Angeles 13 December 1934; married 1958 Lili Gentle (divorced 1968), 1969 Linda Harrison (divorced 1978), 1978 Lili Fini; died Los Angeles 13 July 2012.