Whom, the elder Zanuck asked, should he appoint head of production of 20th Century Fox, which had fallen on hard times and was losing millions on the problem-plagued "Cleopatra" starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Richard Zanuck gave his father — a co-founder of Fox – a piece of paper with a single word on it: Me.
Dad took his son's recommendation and, over the next five decades, Richard Zanuck emerged from the shadow of his father at the studio and eventually became an Oscar-winning independent producer of such films as "Jaws," which ushered in the modern blockbuster era. He followed with well-regarded films such as "The Verdict," and "Driving Miss Daisy."
Zanuck, who was 77, died Friday morning of a heart attack at his Beverly Hills home, said his publicist, Jeff Sanderson.
FOR THE RECORD:
Richard Zanuck obituary: The obituary of movie producer Richard Zanuck in the July 14 Section A included an incomplete list of Zanuck's survivors. In addition to his wife, Lili Fini Zanuck, sons, Harrison and Dean, and at least nine grandchildren, Zanuck is survived by two daughters, Virginia and Janet, with his first wife, Lili Gentle. —
While in his 20s and 30s, Zanuck oversaw production at 20th Century Fox, where he nurtured great films and filmmakers and helped the studio collect a long string of Oscars. As a producer, he shepherded the careers of blockbuster directors Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton.
"He taught me everything I know about producing," Spielberg, who considered him a director's producer, said in a statement Friday. "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."
Tim Burton said in a statement: "I'm in shock and heartbroken. He was like family to me — a mentor, friend and father figure. Richard was a completely unique and amazing individual, and there will never be anyone else like him. I'm too sad to speak more about it right now and need some time to mourn."
Clint Eastwood, who was involved with Zanuck on his films "The Eiger Sanction" and "True Crime," said he was "a great asset" for a director to have.
"He could watch your back, so to speak," Eastwood said Friday. "He also had good taste and could be very helpful.... A lot of producers are producers in name only; he was the real deal."
Unlike many of his Hollywood contemporaries, Zanuck, the only son of 20th Century Fox's original production chief, comfortably straddled the lines between commercial and critical success.
He won the best picture Oscar for "Driving Miss Daisy," and several of his more popular films were embraced by audiences and reviewers alike, including "Road to Perdition" and "Cocoon." Perhaps his greatest legacy, though, was in launching the modern blockbuster era with Spielberg's 1975 great white shark smash "Jaws," which adjusted for inflation grossed more than "Ben-Hur" and "Avatar."
Compared to modern studio production heads, who are obligated to churn out sequels, remakes and mindless popcorn fare, Zanuck as the studio's head of production in the 1960s championed an eclectic slate driven by strong stories and visionary directors.
Producer Joe Roth, who collaborated with Zanuck and Tim Burton on the $1-billion smash hit "Alice in Wonderland," said of Zanuck on Friday: "He's the history of Hollywood. He knew everything about producing movies. He's seen it all. He was someone I idolized."
"I'm pretty shocked," Roth said of Zanuck's sudden death. "He was the kind of person you thought was going to live forever. He ran every day, had zero body fat, played tennis and didn't drink."
Teamed with former Fox associate David Brown in the Zanuck/Brown Company in the 1970s and '80s, Zanuck and his partner produced Spielberg's first feature film (1974's "The Sugarland Express") and his second film a year later: the blockbuster "Jaws," which caused countless moviegoers to rethink their summer vacation plans to the seashore.
"Not until the first preview in Dallas, not until the shark jumped out of the water, did we know that we had a monster hit," Zanuck recalled in 2005 on CBS' "Sunday Morning."