Richard Zanuck, producer who gave Spielberg his big break, dies at 77

Contributed by
Dec 17, 2012

Richard D. Zanuck, the legendary producer who fought to make Steven Spielberg the director of Jaws and shepherded Tim Burton through one of the most profitable phases of his career, passed away Friday after suffering a heart attack at his home in Los Angeles. He was 77.

The son of legendary producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who produced classics such as The Grapes of Wrath and All About Eve, Zanuck entered the family business immediately after graduating from Stanford University in 1962. At just 28, he became the youngest production head in Hollywood when he joined Fox as executive vice president in charge of production. At Fox, he helped produce classics including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The French Connection, but a string of musical duds including Doctor Dolittle and Hello Dolly helped to force him out of the company in 1970.

Along with his production partner David Brown, Zanuck landed at Warner Bros., where he worked on Blazing Saddles and The Exorcist. The pair formed the Zanuck-Brown production company in 1972 and moved to Universal Pictures, where Zanuck helped to invent the blockbuster.

After establishing himself with work on the Best Picture winner The Sting in 1973, Zanuck was instrumental in getting Steven Spielberg's feature film debut, The Sugarland Express, made. When it came time to make Jaws, Zanuck fought hard for Spielberg to direct even when studio head Lew Wasserman thought the young director couldn't handle the film. We all know how that turned out.

"He always feels his job is to protect the director," Spielberg later said of Zanuck. "Having run a studio for many years, he understood the corporate pressure put on filmmakers, and yet he still turned out to be the filmmaker's best friend."

More recently, Zanuck entered into a lengthy collaboration with director Tim Burton. Beginning with Planet of the Apes in 2001, they worked on six films together that grossed a total of more than $2 billion, much of that from the 2010 hit Alice in Wonderland. Among his other credits are Cocoon (1985), Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Deep Impact (1998), Road to Perdition (2002) and Clash of the Titans (2010).

Earlier this year, Zanuck spoke to Variety about what he felt his duties were as producer, a job title that holds little meaning for many moviegoers.

"I think there's been a devaluation of the concept," he said. "Maybe too many people have used the term 'producer' when they weren't qualified. That's what the Producers Guild has been fighting for years. I was the chairman of the producers' branch of the Academy for about 10 years, and we were constantly trying to find ways to prevent this proliferation of credits. A producer should contribute from the very beginning until the very end, in all aspects. I'm there at the set every day, on every shot. Not that the director, particularly Tim (Burton), needs me, but just in case. There are producers who don't even watch the dailies, who have some contact with the project and get their name slapped on there. That's what we've been trying to get rid of."

Zanuck is survived by his wife Lili Fini Zanuck, his sons Harrison and Dean and his nine grandchildren.

(Via Variety)