Dick Zanuck — He Left Us the Way He Would Leave a Working Lunch at the Palm

Guest Blog: I had never been in the offices of legends until Bob Zemeckis brought me to the Zanuck-Brown Company to pitch my take on an unpublished novel, "Cocoon"


I had never been in the offices of legends until Bob Zemeckis brought me to the Zanuck-Brown Company, an elegant and spacious stand-alone building at the back of the Fox lot. 

Ushered into the conference room, I wandered around. All the walls and and side tables were covered with one sheets and assorted trophies: "The Sting," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Jaws," "Sugarland Express." The less successful pictures were also scrupulously represented — "Ssssss," "Neighbors," "The Black Windmill," "The Girl From Petrovka," "Willie Dynamite" and others I can't remember.

We were waiting to go in and pitch my take on a project they were developing from an unpublished novel with Zemeckis — "Cocoon." Lili Zanuck had found the manuscript. It was to be the first film she would produce with Zanuck-Brown. I had had a blast figuring out what I wanted to do with the script. Zemeckis was a fervent original, creatively restless and an inspiration to work for.

It was definitely going to be intense for me to go in and meet with Richard Zanuck, his wife, Lili and David Brown to present my pitch. But surrounded by all those one-sheets in the Zanuck-Brown conference room, I found myself buoyed, elated and joyfully confident. 

What was I thinking? Dick had a cavernous office in their building on the lot. I had never had a meeting in a room that big in Hollywood before. Or with producers this prominent. But there was something clear and steadying about Zanuck's presence that reassured me. He was genial, gracious, passionate about movies and about storytelling in the film form. I was there to talk about a picture and he presented himself with complete focus.

The meeting went well. They liked my pitch, which eventually did evolve into the skin, bones, musculature and central nervous system of "Cocoon," and which was very different from the existing material. Dick, Lili and Bob were ready to hire me. David was more cautious. He suggested that they engage me to write a treatment with the option to go to screenplay. 

Sensing that this would impede the project, Bob and Lili vehemently insisted they hire me to write a script for them. Dick held the deciding vote that day. He agreed with Lili and Bob — a decision that changed my life. With a shrug and a smile, David quickly relented and it became unanimous. I had been hired to write "Cocoon."  

They were able to get Sherry Lansing, then head of 20th Century Fox, to make a deal without another pitch meeting. Back then, it could happen like that. These days — not so much.

After research trips to Florida, many pages written longhand and finally a first draft, I handed it in to the producers. I had blind faith in what I had written. But it was out of my hands. Completely.

In the house on Santa Monica beach where he and Lili lived at that time, Dick had a particular chair where he always sat to read scripts. I had heard about that spot. He called me after reading it and told me that he loved the script. The screenplay moved forward through producers' notes and the input of two directors. But Richard Zanuck never wavered from his instinctive initial feeling about the script. He vowed he was never going to let anyone "screw it up." 

Everyone involved helped to make it better. David Brown. Zemeckis. Then Ron Howard. Throughout, Lili worked long and hard on the film. The Zanucks were such a great couple. Always. Unforgettably devoted to each other. Incandescent. Lively. Energizing to be around. I cannot think of one without the other from the times I spent with them in those days.

I joined the Writers Guild of America from that assignment. Dick, Lili and David were amazing producers. As I worked with them on our project and observed how they dealt with other projects in development, I was disarmed by the emotional attachment they exhibited for all the projects they worked on.

They understood show business. But more importantly they had great love for filmmaking and for the movies they had made or labored to get into production. As Hollywood as he was born and bred, Dick maintained a purity in relation to movies, to scripts. Hollywood chit chat, small talk was of little interest to him.

Last week, he left his wife, his family and all of us much too abruptly. He was one of those people who seemed like he would last forever. He possessed matchless endurance in the motion picture business and in life. He believed in our movie, yet was mindful of the vagaries of the business.

At a working lunch at the Palm, he told Lili and me that we would be able to "dine out" on "Cocoon" until it was released. After that, it was up to the movie gods, I guess. Fortunately, they seem to have favored "Cocoon," more or less. I am still dining out on "Cocoon."

Dick left us as abruptly as he would stand up from one of those working lunches at the Palm. No lingering, no chit chat, just time to move on.

And this time much too soon.