Richard Zanuck had a ‘Compulsion’ to produce films

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Movie producing was in Dick Zanuck’s blood.

Zanuck, who died Friday morning of a heart attack at age 77, won (with his wife, Lili Fini Zanuck) the best picture Oscar for 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy.” He also earned best picture nominations for producing 1975’s “Jaws” and 1982’s “The Verdict” with David Brown.

His success in films was perhaps to be expected.

The youngest of three children born to longtime 20th Century Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck and his wife, Virginia Fox, young Zanuck grew up privileged in Hollywood, partying with Shirley Temple as a kid. He began his own film career at 19 in the story department at Fox and by 24 had produced his first film, 1959’s “Compulsion.”

Based on the 1956 novel of the same name by Meyer Levin and Levin’s 1957 hit Broadway play, the stark drama was a fictionalized version of the famed Leopold and Loeb thrill killings and murder trial of the 1920s. Directed by Richard Fleischer and penned by Richard Murphy, the black-and-white production had a semi-documentary style quality thanks to William C. Mellor’s cinematography.


But the calling card of the film was the acclaimed performances from Dean Stockwell — who had done the play — and Bradford Dillman as the brilliant teenage boys who try to commit the perfect crime, and Orson Welles as the Clarence Darrow figure, here called Jonathan Wilk. All three actors shared the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Originally, Darryl Zanuck had planned to produce the film. Levin sold him the rights with the proviso that he wait to make the film until the play concluded. By the time the play closed in 1958, the elder Zanuck was involved in production of the John Huston film “Roots of Heaven,” so his son got the job.

Though it wasn’t a box office hit, the film earned several other major nominations: Fleischer earned a DGA nomination as well as a BAFTA and Palme d’or nod and Murphy was also nominated for a WGA Award.

From there, the young Zanuck never looked back and remained an active, hands-on filmmaker until he died, producing Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” this year and working on the thriller “Hidden,” set for next year.


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