Saul Zaentz: Litigious record company executive who turned to film producing and went on to win three Academy Awards

 

Saul Zaentz was a highly litigious record producer whose second career as a film-maker brought him Academy Awards for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus and The English Patient. He wasn't a prolific film producer, but he took on high-quality projects, specialising in complex literary adaptations.

After moving into cinema at age of 50 with the 1972 low-budget country-music drama Payday he made only nine more films, giving him a remarkable Oscars success rate. Among his other films were the 1978 animated version of The Lord of the Rings, the 1986 Harrison Ford drama The Mosquito Coast, 1998's acclaimed The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which co-starred Juliette Binoche, who went on to win an Oscar for The English Patient, and 1991's At Play in the Fields of the Lord, a critical and commercial flop despite a cast that included Kathy Bates, Tom Berenger and John Lithgow.

Zaentz was a throwback to old Hollywood, a producer who cared about his films and would go to extremes to get them right, often putting his own money up. He appreciated directors with a unique personal vision and was willing to take chances on relatively untested film-makers. The only film of note Anthony Minghella had made was Truly, Madly, Deeply when Zaentz picked him for The English Patient, for which he won an Oscar as Best Director. And the Czech director Milos Forman had worked mostly in his home country when Zaentz and his co-producer Michael Douglas chose him to make One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Forman went on to make Amadeus.

With Lord of the Rings, whose rights he had acquired in the mid-1970s, Zaentz rejected all proposals to do a live-action version until he saw Peter Jackson's visually striking Heavenly Creatures. Though Zaentz's involvement was limited and he did not share in the producing credits, he gave full blessing to Jackson's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. He later sued over royalties, however, and the dispute was settled out of court in 2005. A lavish theatrical version was mounted in Toronto in 2006 but closed after six months. Trimmed and reworked for a run in London, it ran for 13 months though it still failed to impress critics.

Zaentz went into the film business after growing bored with his career in the music industry, which centred round the Fantasy Records label he bought in 1967. Largely a jazz label whose catalogue included albums by Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, Fantasy also released albums by Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose leader, John Fogerty, feuded with Zaentz in bitter court battles. After CCR disbanded in the early 1970s, Fogerty had carved out a decent solo career. He was signed to Asylum in the US but Fantasy held the rights for the rest of the world; after legal and financial disputes with Zaentz, Fogerty freed himself from Fantasy only by giving up the rights to all Creedence's material – it cost him millions, but gave him peace of mind, he said.

In 1985 his first album for Warner Bros, Centerfield, contained two songs directed at Zaentz, "Zanz Kant Danz" – about a pig who can't dance but will steal your money – and "Mr Greed". Zaentz issued a libel writ, and Fogerty changed the name of the former to "Vanz Kant Danz". Zaentz launched a second lawsuit, alleging that another song from the album, "The Old Man Down The Road", shared the same chorus as "Run Through the Jungle", a Creedence song that remained in the Fantasy library, but Fogerty won the case, establishing that the two songs were completely distinct. Fogerty countersued over lawyers' fees, and eventually won his case in the US Supreme Court. After Zaentz sold Fantasy in 2004, Fogerty made peace with the label's new owners.

Born in 1921, in Passaic, New Jersey, Zaentz earned a degree in poultry husbandry from Rutgers University. He served in Africa and Sicily and aboard troop ships in the North Atlantic and Pacific during the Second World War. Afterwards he went to business college and moved to San Francisco, where he worked for a small record distributor and later joined jazz producer Norman Granz, working on recordings and concerts.

Zaentz had worked in the music industry for nearly two decades when he decided to try his hand at film. He tended to go after the rights to literary works he loved, and one of the first was Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Kirk Douglas owned the film rights, and would only sell them, Zaentz later recalled, if he could star in the film. Uninterested, Zaentz went off and produced Payday, which starred Rip Torn. By then, Michael Douglas had obtained the Cuckoo's Nest rights from his father, and he and Zaentz teamed up to produce the film in 1975 with Jack Nicholson.

The film won five Oscars and was the first since It Happened One Night 42 years earlier to sweep the four main categories of best picture, director (Forman), actor (Nicholson) and actress (Louise Fletcher). Zaentz's next film, the 1977 American Indian drama Three Warriors, quickly disappeared, though, and he later admitted that his animated Lord of the Rings from 1978 had missed the mark.

Teaming up with Forman again, Zaentz made Amadeus (1984), adapted from Peter Shaffer's play examining the relationship between Mozart and Antonio Salieri. It won eight Oscars, including best director, and best actor for F Murray Abraham as Salieri. Zaentz topped that with The English Patient, which won nine – but it nearly didn't get made at all. The original backers, 20th Century Fox, shut it down because Zaentz declined to recast it with a bigger-name cast. Miramax came to the rescue, with Zaentz putting up cash of his own to round out the budget. The same night The English Patient triumphed at the Oscars, Zaentz received the Irving G Thalberg Award, a lifetime-achievement honour for producers.

"My cup is full," he said in accepting the award. After The English Patient won Best Picture, he added: "I said my cup was full before. Now it runneth over." He had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for many years.

Saul Zaentz, record company executive and film producer: born Passaic, New Jersey 28 February 1921; died San Francisco 3 January 2014.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Life and Style
tech

Apple has been hit by complaints about the 1.1GB download

Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC
tv

Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff
tv

Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Arts and Entertainment
tv

Life and Style
i100

Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife
film

Matt Smith is set to join cast of the Jane Austen classic - with a twist

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmWhat makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me
tv

Actress to appear in second series of the hugely popular crime drama

Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes hobby look 'dysfunctional'
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Network Infrastructure Technical Lead - up to £45k DOE - Surrey

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Technical Architect - Surrey - £35k-£45k DOE - Permanent

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: English Teacher needed for a ...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week