Saul Zaentz, who parlayed a successful run in the music industry into a second career as one of the most ambitious and adventurous of independent film producers, has died. Zaentz had suffered from Alzheimer’s in recent years. He was 92.
After five years spent working as a distributor for powerful jazz impresario and producer Norman Granz, Zaentz moved to Fantasy Records in 1955. In 1967, Zaentz put together a group of investors who purchased Fantasy and—with Zaentz in the driver’s seat—expanded the commercial and creative range of the jazz-centered label by signing Creedence Clearwater Revival. CCR would quickly become one of the most successful rock acts in the world, and it would spend its entire recording career with Fantasy, in the process making both the company and Zaentz hugely rich.
The only downside of that connection: a feud between Zaentz and CCR frontman John Fogerty that persisted for decades after the band broke up in 1972. Fogerty, who had signed away his distribution and publishing rights to Fantasy in order to get out of his contract, refused for years to perform any material he’d recorded with CCR, all in order to deny Zaentz further royalties. In 1985, Forgerty released his first new album in a decade, Centerfield; it contained a song about a thieving pig called “Zanz Kant Danz.”
Zaentz sued Fogerty for defamation of character and, for good measure, filed a plagiarism suit claiming that one of Fogerty’s new songs, “The Old Man Down The Road,” copied the melody of “Run Through The Jungle,” a 1970 song that Fogerty had written for CCR—and a song Zaentz therefore owned. A jury ruled in Fogerty’s favor in the plagiarism case, but following the lawsuit, Fogerty and Warner Bros. ended up changing the name of the pig song to “Vanz Kant Danz.”
By that time, Zaentz had reinvented himself as a movie producer, starting with 1973’s Payday, a widely acclaimed character study of a hellraising, disintegrating country singer played by Rip Torn. Payday proved to be unusual for a Zaentz production in that it began with an original screenplay, in this case by the novelist Don Carpenter. Most of Zaentz’s movies thereafter were fairly prestigious literary adaptations.
For years, Zaentz was one of several people in the film business who had their eye on a movie version of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but who were also frustrated by the desire of Kirk Douglas—who’d starred in a theatrical version and purchased the rights—to make the movie as a vehicle for himself. Zaentz finally made the movie in 1975 after partnering with Michael Douglas, who was in a unique position to persuade his father that he’d grown too old for the part. The movie won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman), for Best Adapted Screenplay, and for its leads, Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. It would be the first of three Zaentz productions to win the Oscar for Best Picture, including 1984’s Amadeus, also directed by Forman, and Anthony Minghella’s 1996 The English Patient.
Zaentz also produced Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 film The Lord Of The Rings—a curio of a time when it was assumed only animation could ever do justice to Tolkien’s material—as well as Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast (1986), Phil Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (1988), Hector Babenco’s At Play In The Fields Of The Lord (1991), and his final film and collaboration with Milos Forman, Goya’s Ghosts (2006). In 1980, he opened the Saul Zaentz Film Center to handle the editing and sound work on his own films and others’. It was sold and renamed the Zaentz Media Center in 2007.