Richard Zanuck, who died today at 77, was one of the most famous and longest-working producers in Hollywood. He was born into the industry. His father, Darryl Zanuck, co-founded 20th Century Fox in 1933 and served as its vice-president in charge of production. Richard produced his first film, Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion, in 1959, when he was 24. Three years later, with 20th Century Fox in chaos over the expensive fiasco of the Elizabeth Taylor epic Cleopatra, Darryl Zanuck persuaded the studio’s board of directors to empower him as chairman, and named his son president of the company. Richard had a blockbuster with The Sound Of Music (1965), but later said that the success of that family musical had been detrimental to the studio system because so many attempts to imitate it went down in flames. One such attempt, the 1967 Doctor Dolittle, so embarrassed the studio that it led to Zanuck being fired by his own father. Zanuck’s last year at 20th Century Fox and the Dolittle fiasco were covered in John Gregory Dunne’s book The Studio. (Darryl Zanuck himself was forced out in 1971. Richard said that he himself got over the humiliation of being fired but that his father never did.)
Bouncing back, Zanuck teamed up with David Brown, another castoff from Fox, to form an independent production company in 1972. The two struck pay dirt when they decided to take a chance on a young TV director, Steven Spielberg; the Zanuck/Brown Company produced Spielberg’s first feature, The Sugarland Express (1974), then hired him for the big job of directing 1975’s summer blockbuster, Jaws. After that, Zanuck and Brown could allow themselves a certain number of flops and still retain their reputations as men with the midas touch. With Brown, Zanuck produced Jaws 2, The Verdict, and Cocoon; he also produced the Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy with his wife, Lili Fini Zanuck. More recently, Zanuck was a producer on six films directed by Tim Burton, including Big Fish, Sweeney Todd, Alice In Wonderland, and this year’s Dark Shadows.