Producer Richard D. Zanuck Dies at 77

Son of a movie business legend, he helped usher in the summer blockbuster by producing "Jaws"

Richard D. Zanuck, the producer of "Jaws" and "Driving Miss Daisy," died Friday in Los Angeles, a spokeswoman for his production company told TheWrap. He was 77. 

The cause of death was a heart attack.

The son of famed 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck, he would make his own indelible mark on the movie business by championing a then-unknown director named Steven Spielberg. 

Their 1975 adaptation of Peter Benchley's pulpy novel about a killer shark terrorizing a beach town would usher in a new era of summer blockbusters and fundamentally alter the type of movies that the industry makes. The DNA of "Jaws," which at the time was the highest grossing movie in history, can still be detected in such recent tentpole hits like "The Avengers" and "Avatar," cinematic spectacles that entice audiences through a combination of special effects and easily digestible plots. 

Although best known as one of the foremost movie producers in Hollywood, he would also enjoy stints as a top executive at Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, where he helped oversee such classic pictures as "The Exorcist" and "The Sound of Music." 

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As an independent producer, he remained a major boaster of top-shelf directing talent. He would discover Spielberg and give him his first feature film job on 1974's "The Sugarland Express" and would go on to collaborate with the likes of Tim Burton and Ron Howard, producing such hit films as "Alice in Wonderland," "Cocoon" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." 

In a statement Friday, Spielberg called Zanuck a "cornerstone" of the industry and reflected on the often troubled path "Jaws" had to maneuver to make it to the big screen.

"In 1974, Dick Zanuck and I sat in a boat off Martha's Vineyard and watched the mechanical shark sink to the bottom of the sea," Spielberg said. "Dick turned to me and smiled. 'Gee, I sure hope that's not a sign.' That moment forged a bond between us that lasted nearly 40 years. He taught me everything I know about producing. He was one of the most honorable and loyal men of our profession and he fought tooth and nail for his directors."

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"Jaws" likely remains the touchstone, but Zanuck's was a varied career. In addition to blockbusters, there were also ventures into quieter dramas, such as "Driving Miss Daisy," which chronicled the unlikely friendship between an aging Southern dowager and her black chauffeur and won Zanuck an Oscar for Best Picture in 1989. 

As befitting a son of Hollywood royalty (his mother was actress Virginia Fox), Zanuck made a big splash in the movie business almost immediately after graduating from Stanford University and serving as an army lieutenant. He joined his father as a story and production assistant on two 20th Century Fox films, "Island in the Sun" and "The Sun Also Rises." At 24, he made his debut as a full-fledged producer with the feature film "Compulsion," a dramatization of the Leopold and Loeb murder trial that won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for the ensemble work of its stars Orson Welles, Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman.   

Just 28 years old, Zanuck was named president in charge of production of 20th Century Fox. He would inherit a studio still reeling from the big budget disaster of "Cleopatra," which had forced it to sell off its back lot in what is now Century City and enact major layoffs.  

Salvation would come in the form of "The Sound of Music," an adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that won Best Picture and became one of the biggest grossing films of all time. Though the studio, like most of the other major players, struggled to adapt to shifting tastes during the 1960's, under Zanuck's leadership it produced such cultural touchstones at "Patton," "The French Connection," "Butch Cassidy" and the Sundance Kid" and "M*A*S*H."

In a statement to TheWrap, Tom Rothman, chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, remembered the impact that Zanuck had made not just on the studio, but the movie business as a whole.

 

"Richard Zanuck was a great man and a great friend — a true giant in our industry," Rothman said. "The story of our studio, and indeed, all of modern motion picture history itself would not have been the same without his influence.  All of us lucky enough to work at 20th Century Fox today, mourn his loss, and honor and celebrate his legacy."

Zanuck subsequently moved from Fox to become senior executive vice-president at Warner Bros., where he and David Brown, who would go on to become his producing partner, oversaw production of such box office hits as "Blazing Saddles."

Along with David Brown, he formed Zanuck/Brown Co. in 1971, and as independent producers the pair helped create award-winning and box office hits like "The Sting" and "The Verdict." 

Zanuck would go onto form his own production entity, Zanuck Company, in 1988. He remained active in the movie business, producing this summer's box office misfire "Dark Shadows," an adaptation of the 1960's soap opera that failed to connect with audiences. 

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

Alexander C. Kaufman contributed to this report