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Richard Zanuck: A Retrospective (Guest Post)

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Many would agree that if television is a writer’s medium, then the theater is an actor’s medium and that film is a director’s medium.  By this, I don’t mean to imply that the acting, writing and directing aren’t all crucial aspects in the performing arts; I’m just meaning to say that for each of those mediums, the importance of a certain component becomes somewhat heightened.  In the cinema, it’s the director’s vision that sees a project through from its infancy stage until the final product is shown on silver screens around the globe.  However, film didn’t always used to be a director’s medium.  Back in the formative days of Hollywood, the producer was king.  These were the days of the studio system, and men like Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer lorded over the industry.  But ever since the studio system was broken up, the producer’s role in the creative process has steadily decreased.  Indeed the celebrity aspect of being a producer has been thoroughly diminished, save a couple of exceptions.  Producers like Robert Evans, Harvey Weinstein and Jerry Bruckheimer have attained some notoriety over the course of their respective careers.  One of cinema’s most famed producers of any era passed away last July.  His name was Richard D. Zanuck, and the influence he had on American cinema was indelible. 

If the name Zanuck rings a bell, it may be because of him and because of his lineage.  The Zanuck family has long been a powerful clan in Hollywood, starting with patriarch Darryl F. Zanuck.  He was one of the founding members of what is now 20th Century Fox.  Richard’s career certainly benefited from his surname; ask anyone and you’ll find that Hollywood is a town built on nepotism.  But again, ask anyone in Hollywood, and they will surely tell you that Richard had a special talent and dedication that made him truly special among most ordinary film producers. 

Even though he was studying at Stanford University, Zanuck interrupted his studies to take a position at his father’s studio in the story department.  His rise to the top was speedy to say the least.  He produced his first film, “Compulsion,” in 1959, and was president of the studio only a few years after that.  His reign at Fox was short-lived however, due to flops like “Doctor Doolittle” and “Star.”  Zanuck would later say about these flops, “’The Sound of Music’ did more damage to the industry than any other picture. Everyone tried to copy it.  We were the biggest offenders.”  

Jaws: 1975
Whereas many others may have not survived a similar firing (his father didn’t), Zanuck took other jobs around the town, including at Warner Bros.  He started to find his biggest success in 1972, when he and friend David Brown partnered up to form their own company, the Zanuck/Brown Company.  The two men discovered a young, upstart director who agreed to make a couple of films for them.  That director’s name was Steven Spielberg, and one of those films was the 1975 blockbuster/masterpiece “Jaws.”  Despite all of the problems that plagued the production of that film (a faulty mechanical shark, an unfinished script), “Jaws” went on to be the highest grossing film of all time, and has largely been attributed as a game changer in studio filmmaking along with “Star Wars.”  Zanuck and crew had pioneered the Hollywood blockbuster.  His filmography would go on to include several more, including “Cocoon,” “Road to Perdition” and a bevy of Tim Burton films.  He also won the elusive Best Picture Academy Award for his work on “Driving Miss Daisy.”
It was on July 13, 2012 that Richard Zanuck died from complications due to a heart attack.  The tributes came pouring in, via press releases and twitter.  “He taught me everything I know about producing,” Steven Spielberg said.  “He was one of the most honorable and loyal men of our profession, and he fought tooth and nail for his directors.  Dick Zanuck was a cornerstone of our industry, both in name and in deed.”  His funeral proceedings featured more stars than a red carpet for the Academy Awards.  I guess it’s fitting that so many stars would show support for one of the last stars of his kind.

Zack Mandell is a movie enthusiast and owner of and writer of movie reviews about movies such as Road to Perdition. He writes extensively about the movie industry for sites such as Gossip Center, Yahoo, NowPublic, and Helium.

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