Pete Hammond

With Dick Zanuck’s sudden passing today at the age of 77 one of the last direct links of a still-active bigtime Hollywood player to the beginnings of the major studios is also gone. When he was hired in 1962 by his father, the legendary Darryl F. Zanuck (who, coincidentally also died at the age of 77 in 1979), to head production at Fox after the bloated production of Cleopatra nearly  shut the place down, Dick Zanuck was only 28 years old,  the youngest  to have such a job since the earliest days of the studios . 8 years later financial troubles at the studio forced his father to fire him, but the makings of one of the producing greats  was quite apparent.

My all-time favorite book about Hollywood, John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio published in 1968, had extraordinary access in chronicling the year 1967 in the life of 20th Century Fox and really gives you a warts-and-all understanding of who Dick Zanuck was personally and professionally, in success and failure, even then at such a young age. You can see how he was shaped as it was happening, and it’s a fascinating read or a must re-read for those thinking about Zanuck and his legacy  today.

Near the end of the book Darryl Zanuck explains why he hired his son and the trust he put in him. As Dunne describes the conversation he writes you could hear the paternal pride. “I was put under terrific criticism when I sent Dick out to head up the studio. What could I do? He was the only one I could trust… I knew things were bad, but not that bad. I paid off millions of dollars in contracts and threw out every goddamn script we had in preparation. They were all lousy. And then I sent Dick out there. I let him alone. In the first place I was so goddamned swamped here. And then I thought if I went out there myself, I’d be cutting  the ground out from under his feet. People would say, ‘Hell, the old man is here, Dick’s just an office boy.’  So I let him alone. He calls me, he talks me into  some things, and I talk him out of some things. I’m a picture maker, and we’ve done all right, ” said Darryl Zanuck or DFZ as Dick refers to him in Dunne’s riveting account of life at a major studio.

Related: R.I.P. Dick Zanuck

Like father, like son as both did more than “all right”. Under Dick’s watch Fox won three Best Picture Oscars for The Sound Of Music, Patton and The French Connection (even though that wouldn’t come out until 1971) and such seminal hits as Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, M*A*S*H and Planet Of The Apes were also hatched. Zanuck learned how to bet on filmmakers during that time and it served him well right up to this summer when his final production, Dark Shadows opened. That was his sixth collaboration with Tim Burton, a relationship that started in 2001 with the filmmaker’s re-imagining of Planet Of The Apes. Zanuck clearly had the midas touch with talented filmmakers. They loved working with him and obviously felt like they were in good hands. Dick and then-partner David Brown also produced two of Steven Spielberg’s early movies, The Sugarland Express and of course, Jaws which also became the film that created the quintiessential ”summer movie” as we know it now.

Related: Tim Burton On Dick Zanuck’s Passing

He  clearly had the midas touch with Oscar too. Not only were there all those big Oscar successes while he was in charge at Fox, Zanuck/Brown’s The Sting (1973) took Best Picture and their company also won Best Picture nominations for Jaws and The Verdict. But he wasn’t done when the company dissolved in 1988.  The next year Zanuck, along with wife Lili Fini Zanuck won Best Picture Oscars for Driving Miss Daisy, the debut film for the newly formed Zanuck Company. With that personal statuette Zanuck and his dad became the only father/son to both win Best Picture in Academy history. Plus they also pulled off the same trick  when Dick shared the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award with Brown in 1991 (Darryl Zanuck had actually won it a record 3 times). The Oscar karma continued in 2000 when Dick and Lili produced the Oscar show itself and it remains the highest rated of any ceremony that has been produced since then. He even managed to work wonders with the Academy for some of his box office disappointments when he was at Fox including Dr. Dolittle which rather notoriously somehow managed to get 9 nominations including a dubious Best Picture nod in 1967 (it won two) thanks to a masterfully orchestrated campaign on the studio’s part. And two years later Hello Dolly (which is much better than some critics seem to think) also managed 7 noms along with a  Best Picture mention (it won 3) in the same category with a  Zanuck Fox hit, Butch Cassidy. Actually there was some bit of revenge in the case of the much-maligned Dolittle  when Eddie Murphy would come along and turn the Fox property into a sizable comedy success for the studio 30 years later.

It’s no wonder then that this man who had been connected with so many Oscar triumphs over his 55-year career might think he could have one more even though, to his chagrin,  most handicappers didn’t agree. One of the great pleasures of my time in covering various awards seasons was in October 2010 when I got a call from Zanuck’s late great publicist Ronni Chasen to set up a rare interview with Zanuck at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge to discuss what they both thought were strong Best Picture Oscar prospects for his monster hit, Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, a movie that had grossed a billion dollars but was not generating a lot of early Oscar buzz, something Zanuck wanted to address head-on.  Chasen, who also sat with us, kept telling me how special this was. ”Dick never does this,” she said. So for me it was a thrill to be sitting for breakfast in the Polo Lounge talking Oscars and movies with none other that a legend like Zanuck even though I knew a Best Picture nomination for Alice was tilting at windmills even with the new 10-nominee rule. I was really impressed to  see first hand how much this guy cared about his movies even at an age when most producers have probably retired. He seemed so energized by it all and wasn’t content just to sit on the wad of cash the movie made. He wanted respect for Burton’s work.  ”This is the quietest billion dollar picture in the history of billion dollar pictures and I just don’t think the Academy membership at large knows about it,” he said while expressing frustration that it wasn’t showing up on any lists of contenders. He also talked extensively about ideas he still had to make the Oscar show better (“Let’s put on a different kind of show. Let’s compact the  show to within 90 minutes at the most and have a whole different concept”) that made me wish he would get another shot at producing it some day.

It was a day I will never forget as it would also turn out to be the last time I really got to sit down with Ronni, a good friend  (she was murdered a month later) who emailed to tell me how much Dick appreciated the piece. She was very protective of her long-time client and I know she would have been pissed that the film  ended up receiving only three nominations. It did manage to win two right off the top of the Oscar show for Art Direction and Costume Design so Zanuck had yet another small Oscar moment in a remarkable  career filled with big ones.

It’s a sad day again in Hollywood but I am sure Ronni is hard at work publicizing Dick Zanuck’s arrival ‘up there’ right now.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.