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RIP Hollywood Scion, Dick Zanuck, One of the Great Producers

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood July 13, 2012 at 7:04PM

I thought producer Richard D. Zanuck would live forever. He was so energetic, so happy over the last decade producing films with Tim Burton, so keen on staying in the game. We talked once about writing a biography--he was the subject early in his career of one of the best Hollywood books ever written, John Gregory Dunne's "The Studio"--

The two men complemented each other. The producer is detail-oriented and organized, which gives the director the room he needs to create his fantastic movie worlds, Rothman told me. ''He deals with the studio and lets Tim be an artist. They help each other. Tim is the visual guy, and Dick is the verbal guy.''

Burton said: ''Richard has been so many different things, he's mind-blowing that way.'' The two went on to team on John August's "Big Fish," an adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel ''Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," the Stephen Sondheim musical "Sweeney Todd," and two 3-D films, "Alice in Wonderland" and "Dark Shadows." Burton praised Zanuck's ''full experience of things...That's where his calm comes from. He's seen it all. The weird thing about him is, he doesn't seem jaded. I'm about 20 times more jaded than he is."

Zanuck knows how to tell a story, and many are about his father, who ran Fox's Hollywood studio for 48 years. Like the time his father called him to New York for a Fox corporate board meeting. It was 1962; the board was preoccupied with the over-budget, scandal-plagued epic ''Cleopatra.'' Darryl Zanuck was trying to protect his own big movie, ''The Longest Day,'' from being released in too many theaters (considered a bad thing at the time). He wound up talking the board into letting him take over the presidency of the entire company.

But he had no plans to stop living with his latest mistress in Paris, Richard Zanuck said. So Darryl asked his son to give him a list of candidates to run the West Coast studio. Richard presented him with a piece of paper with one word on it, ''Me.'' Richard credits his father with going for it, even if he'd be accused of nepotism.

First off, the young Zanuck closed the almost-bankrupt Fox Hollywood studio, hanging on to just one television show, ''The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,'' on another lot. Zanuck also kept a few writers, including Ernest Lehman, who wrote ''The Sound of Music.'' It became one of several blockbusters that revived the studio.

Fox had a good run, turning out such Oscar-winners as ''Patton,'' ''The French Connection,'' ''Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid'' and the original ''M*A*S*H.'' But then two musical belly-flops, ''Dr. Dolittle'' and ''Hello, Dolly!,'' ended Zanuck's tenure.

Again he was called to a special New York board meeting by his father, then 75. But this time he was fired. And his father soon followed: his mother Virginia Zanuck controlled 300,000 shares, got involved in a proxy fight and within four months, Darryl was thrown out.

Zanuck went on to team up with his friend, ex-studio executive David Brown, creating the Zanuck/Brown Company, and in 1987 he founded the Zanuck Company with his wife, Lili, who started her producing career at the age of 25 with the Oscar-winning ''Cocoon,'' directed by the young Ron Howard. Zanuck has never hesitated to entrust neophytes with responsibility, as his father did with him. His sons Dean and Harrison work at the Zanuck Company with Richard and Lili, who were married 33 years.

''I was always the youngest person on the set,'' Zanuck said. ''Now I could be the grandfather of a lot of people I'm working with.'' Every few years, when he is in New York having lunch at Cipriani, Zanuck used to visit his father's old haunt, Suite 1125 at the Plaza Hotel. ''I spent so much time there,'' he said. ''I'm a sentimental fool.''

This article is related to: Obit

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.