Richard D. Zanuck, a Hollywood legend too busy for nostalgia

Share via

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

This is a longer version of my Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar cover on Hollywood producer Dick Zanuck, who is having quite the year with ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Clash of the Titans’ and ‘Book of Eli.’ I interviewed Zanuck last year on the set of ‘Alice,’ a few months later on the set of ‘Clash’ and on several occasions here in Los Angeles.

Growing up with the last name Zanuck in Old Hollywood was just like real life -- only different.

As a youngster, Richard D. Zanuck had to sell copies of the Saturday Evening Post to learn the value of hard work. ‘Of course,’ Zanuck said with a wink, ‘my dad did have a chauffeur take me to pick up the papers.’ And even though Zanuck says he never played ‘catch on the beach’ with his dad, he knew his pop cared -- after all, the Hollywood titan bused studio executives to ballgames so they could cheer his son’s name just like extras in a sports movie.


Zanuck, now 75, rattles off the anecdotes with a polished comic timing that suggests they’re familiar favorites, but at the same time he’d much rather talk about the vibrant present instead of the complicated past. For four of the last five weeks, the No. 1 movie in the country was one that Zanuck had a part in producing, and with ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ which has grossed $311 million since its release last month, he has one of the biggest hits of a long career defined by them.

It was telling that recently Basil Inwanyk, a younger producer who worked with Zanuck on ‘Clash of the Titans,’ went to him with (he thought) a flattering proposal: ‘I told Dick I wanted to do a retrospective of his career, and he absolutely hated the idea. ‘Are you out of your mind? I’m still in the heart of my career.’ And he wasn’t trying to be charming. I mean, he was dead serious.’

For Zanuck, nothing comes ahead of making movies except for family -- but, of course, making movies is synonymous with family when your father co-founded 20th Century Fox and your mother was silent-film star Virginia Fox and you grew up playing hide-and-seek on soundstages. Ask him about the most memorable people he’s worked with and he mentions William Wyler and Paul Newman, Fred Zinnemann and Orson Welles, George Roy Hill and Steven Spielberg, and then he stops because the least interesting part of a movie is the credits -- because it means the action is over.

‘These days, right now, these are the good old days,’ he said last year while taking a lunch break on the green-screen set of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ at Sony Pictures Imageworks. ‘I’ve always approached it that way. That’s why I’m still working. I’m not the guy who is ready to sit by the pool. I’m too damn busy. I’m not a nostalgia guy. These last few years, working with Tim Burton, it’s been the best time I’ve ever had.’

After lunch, Zanuck walked around the studio back lot with the relaxed gait of a lifelong athlete.

‘Everything’s changed,’ he said. ‘The technology is the big thing changing now, the way movies like ‘Alice’ or ‘Avatar’ are made. And technology on the other side, the audience side. Word spreads so fast now on a movie, with the Internet, and piracy is something coming down the line like in the music industry.’

Piracy and the instant judgments of today add to the feeling that today’s pop culture is more disposable than ever and it’s easy to romanticize the klieg-light eras of the past. But his face screwed into a dismissive scowl when asked if he misses the outsized characters or glamor of Old Hollywood. ‘I’m not,’ he says, ‘a nostalgia guy.’

Zanuck has made five pictures with director Burton, and three of those starred Johnny Depp. The trio are now planning another, ‘Dark Shadows,’ an adaptation of the gothic melodrama that ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971. Burton and Depp both praise Zanuck as an insightful, savvy and pragmatic producer (‘A more elegant and distinguished gentlemen you couldn’t hope to meet, let alone collaborate with,’ Depp says), but it’s clear too that they enjoy the intangible he brings to a movie set -- there is no producer or director who is more hard-wired into Old Hollywood than the only son of Darryl F. Zanuck.

The two Zanucks could hardly be more different.

The father (who died at age 77 in 1979) never made it to high school and, coming west from Nebraska, invented himself just like the plots he wrote for Rin Tin Tin. He picked up best picture Oscars for ‘All About Eve,’ ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ and ‘How Green Was My Valley.’ He was also a world-class philanderer (Zanuck biographer Leonard Mosley wrote that the studio office would be shut down daily to allow for his liaisons) and a cigar-chomping archetype of the old-school mogul. ‘He has so many yes men following him around the studio,’ comedian Fred Allen once cracked, ‘he ought to put out his hand when he makes a sharp turn.’

The son was raised in wealth and educated at the Harvard Military School where, despite a small frame, he was a star athlete in football and swimming. After his father put him in charge of production at Fox at the tender age of 28, one of his more startling practices was ordering that every executive join him at a nearby track to run (or jog or walk) laps every afternoon.


Most industry observers assumed that this career would be more of a sprint than a marathon; the studio he inherited was in free fall after the fiscal calamity of ‘Cleopatra,’ and the younger Zanuck’s solution was to shutter the place until the tide was turned. Super agent Irving ‘Swifty’ Lazar was among the many who predicted it would never open again.

Against the odds, Zanuck reopened Fox and engineered a string of hits, including ‘The Sound of Music,’ ‘Patton’ and ‘The French Connection,’ all of which won the Oscar for best picture.

When Zanuck watches the famous opening sequence of ‘The Sound of Music,’ with Julie Andrews twirling on the slopes below majestic blue skies, he sees a metaphor for the last-gasp salvation of Fox.

That opening scene was the last thing director Robert Wise shot, and he almost didn’t get it all because of storms that had delayed the aerial-shot sequences. Back in L.A., Zanuck was reaching to pull the plug when the clouds in Europe finally receded. ‘And just like that, the storm was over, we made it through,’ Zanuck said.

More storms were to come; the aging father and successful son ended up on different sides of the boardroom at the close of the 1960s when a battle was waged for control of the studio. When the dust settled, the elder Zanuck was pushed out of ‘his’ studio in 1971 but not before he fired his own son. The son went on to Warner Bros. and then on to a career as a producer, with credits on hits such as ‘Jaws,’ ‘The Verdict,’ ‘Cocoon,’ ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ and ‘Deep Impact.’

On ‘Jaws,’ he and his producing partner, David Brown, worked with a gifted young director, Spielberg, who had to sink or swim when the visual effects work that was supposed to deliver a terrifying shark was slow-going and clunky. There could have been blood in the water on the production but, instead, the director and producers looked for ways to hide the deficiencies with props, flipped (and flipper) perspectives and the sublimely scary theme by John Williams.

‘In desperation, we came up with so many good ideas -- like the floating barrels, for instance, that were shown on the screen to suggest this shark beneath them, underwater -- and we did it because we didn’t have the shark,’ Zanuck said. ‘In the script, the shark is on Page 1 when the girl gets eaten. It became more terrorizing than anything we could have hoped for. If we had CG then we would have had the shark in every frame.’

(Zanuck and Spielberg spoke a few years ago about going back to the original film with the digital paintbrush of CG effects to create a more horrific predator. They decided, for the time being, to leave the film alone, although Zanuck says he is intrigued by the notion of adding 3D effects to the 1976 classic for a theatrical re-release.)

Spielberg says Zanuck has decades of insight and a generous desire to share it.

‘As a producer at the top of his game, what makes Richard Zanuck unique is that he continues to be a mentor,’ Spielberg wrote in an e-mail. ‘He understands the private process that directors often suffer and has always known how to ask the right questions to get us unstuck. On ‘Jaws,’ a very atypical production, we were literally all in the same boat for nearly half a year and Richard, along with his partner, the late David Brown, always made available four shoulders to cry on.’

These days, Zanuck has different roles as a producer depending on the project. On ‘Clash of the Titans,’ the revved-up Greek mythology epic, he came into the project just four weeks before shooting started. Iwanyk makes no bones about the reason: Warner Bros. had seen the expanding scope of the film and wanted a veteran hand in the process ‘in case the wheels flew off.’


Iwanyk listened to Zanuck’s tales of Hollywood, but the quieter conversations actually mean more to the younger producer. Iwanyk says he gave up his spot on the Warners lot in Burbank and moved his offices to Santa Monica after Zanuck preached to him about the need for family devotion.

In ‘The Studio,’ the 1969 book by John Gregory Dunne in which the author was given free rein of the Fox lot and boardrooms, Zanuck’s office is described as a bit of an aberration. There were no framed Variety headlines, no movie props, no grip-and-grin celebrity photos. Instead, there were bronzed baby shoes that the executive passed from hand to hand while negotiating deals with agents.

Zanuck has four children of his own, two daughters and two sons. He was married twice (first to Lili Gentle, then to Linda Harrison) before marrying producer Lili Fini in 1978; they shared the best picture Oscar for 1989’s ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’

As a youngster, he said, he would have to go to his father’s office if he wanted to see him. He shrugs when asked how that influenced his own parenting.

‘It’s been very different, certainly, but do you do things like that as a reaction or just because of who you are?’ The elder Zanuck followed his own path, which led him to move to Paris when his son was 20. ‘He quit his marriage. He quit the studio. He quit California.’ He would be back to take over the studio and then put his son in charge, but he did all of that from New York. ‘We communicated by telephone and telex and I would go see him on the East Coast if there was a big meeting.’

One of those meetings was to persuade the elder Zanuck to sign off on a massively expensive sci-fi epic called ‘Planet of the Apes’ that was an intense gamble; the younger Zanuck trekked to Manhattan with test footage that had been shot with actors in simian costumes, masks and make-up and knew that, if his father chuckled at the sigh of them, the project would be dead on arrival. He didn’t laugh and the film became a sensation in 1968. The younger Zanuck would return to the world of apes as producer with Burton’s 2001 ‘re-imagining’ of the film.

The story of the two Zanucks is especially intriguing to a third Zanuck -- Dean Zanuck, grandson of Darryl, son of Richard and, now, as it turns out, the latest addition to the family business.


He’s the producer of the film ‘Get Low,’ which stars Robert Duvall as a man planning his own funeral in 1930s Tennessee and has Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek in supporting roles. The quirky period piece is making noise at festivals, as did ‘Compulsion,’ the first film his dad produced, which won acting prizes at Cannes for a cast featuring Orson Welles and Dean Stockwell.

Dean Zanuck sees the two other Zanucks as very different men who succeeded under very different circumstances.

‘Darryl Zanuck came from nothing and was not educated past the seventh grade; however, this did not stop him from becoming one of the most powerful men in Hollywood and living an incredible life. Richard Zanuck had a very privileged upbringing, earned a degree from Stanford and was made head of the studio, by his father, at the age of 28. . . . The studio system is all that Darryl knew, and he ruled his fiefdom with absolute power. My dad grew up in that system and thrived in it and as the business changed he’s had to adapt with it to remain successful.’

On the green-screen set of ‘Alice,’ Richard Zanuck sat behind Burton and watched as the director guided Depp and costar Crispin Glover through a sword fight for a climactic fight scene. As Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway, both in costume, watched, Depp worked on his new blade technique -- he had been trying hard to make sure that his Mad Hatter character didn’t use the same moves as old Jack Sparrow. Glover, meanwhile, was balanced atop stilts that would make his knavish character resemble a playing-card character come to life.

Even with all of that going on, Zanuck was more interested in young visitors to the set that day: Depp’s children, who had come to see their father do imaginary battle.

‘Johnny is a terrific father,’ Zanuck whispered. ‘Those kids mean everything to him. He’s one of the biggest stars in history, but that’s not what matters most to him.’

Depp is one of Zanuck’s favorites, that’s clear when he talks about the actor. ‘I’ve had the great privilege to work with some amazing people and Johnny is one of them. One of the people I loved was George Roy Hill. I was in charge of the studio when he directed ‘The Sting’ and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’ I had great success, too, with Billy Friedkin and ‘The French Connection’ and then I after left Fox and spent a year at Warners we did ‘The Exorcist.’ Billy never forgave me, though. I left Warners after a short time and immediately made ‘The Sting’ with George and that movie beat ‘The Exorcist’ at the Academy Awards. Billy was not happy. He called it ‘The Stink.’ ‘

Not long before ‘Alice’ opened, there was a seismic jolt at Disney when new leadership was put in place. The producers of ‘Alice’ were beside themselves with worry about how it would affect the marketing for the film.


The first time Zanuck met Sean Bailey, the new production chief at Disney, the executive smiled at the elder statesman and asked if he had any advice for someone just joining the top tier of Hollywood’s mad race. It was Bailey’s fourth day on the job, and Zanuck, the long-distance runner, smiled.

‘I told him, ‘Don’t forget to take deep breaths all the time.’ And I meant it.’

-- Geoff Boucher


‘Alice in Wonderland’ and its enduring spell on dreamers

Michael Sheen’s research? ‘I lived with a family of rabbits’

Helena Bonham Carter gets a royal proposal from Burton

REVIEW: ‘Wonderland’ is missing the magic

‘Alice in Wonderland’ as silent film, musical and ... porn?


The White Queen as domestic goddess

Avril Lavigne wanders in ‘Wonderland’

Mia Wasikowska on Depp: ‘He’s so brave and smart’

Johnny Depp picks his poison for ‘Alice’

Burton says ‘Alice’ has a ‘national treasure’ in actress Windsor

Photos (not including promotional posters for films):
Top: Richard D. Zanuck at his home in Beverly Hills in February. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times. Second: Tim Burton and Zanuck on the set of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Credit: Leah Gallo / Walt Disney Enterprises. Third: Steven Spielberg and Zanuck on the set of ‘Jaws.’
Bottom: Gregory Peck, David Brown and Zanuck on the set of ‘MacArthur.’ Credit: Los Angeles Times archive