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.

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football Polish side was ejected from Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
news
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Project Manager - Pensions

£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone