The poster from 1975's "Jaws," a front-runner of the summer… (Universal )
Richard Zanuckwas the kind of producer who comes along once in a lifetime — and, given the corporate nature of contemporary Hollywood, may never come along again.
To read through his credits is to watch a half-century of American entertainment fly by. Each film seems huge and era-defining, until you get to the next one.
While still in his 20s, Zanuck ran production at 20th Century Fox, where he nurtured great films and filmmakers and helped the studio collect Oscars by the boatload. Then he lit out as a producer and continued the run from the other side, cultivating the likes of a young Steven Spielberg and solidifying relationships with acting icons such as Paul Newman and Robert Redford. As if all that weren’t enough, Zanuck had spent much of the last decade collaborating with another legend, Tim Burton.
Interactive: Zanuck's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Zanuck died Friday morning at 77, suddenly, of a heart attack. He was in the middle of producing a movie, a thriller called “Hidden,” this time with a new generation of talent that included Alexander Skarsgard and Andrea Riseborough. He died while in the middle of doing what he loved, and what he arguably did as well as anyone in the history of Hollywood.
With all of that in mind, here are six pictures that defined not only a career but a culture. Inevitably given Zanuck’s resume, there are far more great films left off this list than included on it.
“The Sound of Music.” Would movie musicals have become anything close to what they were without the adventures of the Von Trapp family? Would family moviegoing, now a linchpin of film culture, have taken off? As a young executive at Fox, Zanuck shepherded the WWII-set story of singing and escape. And it was hardly just a standard-bearer for future generations — the movie won best picture and became, at the time, the highest-grossing movie in history, eclipsing even “Gone With the Wind.”
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“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." The western had largely faded from consciousness when this story of outlaws on the run came out in 1969. That didn’t stop it from becoming a critical darling and a huge hit at the box office. It springboarded the career of a young Robert Redford and continued a remarkable mid-career run for Paul Newman. The film's realism and grit also set the tone for a 1970s hardboiled Hollywood and, later, an American independent movement.
“The French Connection." Many films embodied the glorious, filmmaker-driven '70s. At the top of the list is the story of New York city cops investigating a French drug-smuggling operation. The film's names alone — Gene Hackman, William Friedkin — are impressive. So is its influence. It's hard to imagine the current boom of internationally minded thrillers without one of the pictures that started it all.
“Jaws." It’s fitting, as the masses gather for the annual blockbuster extravaganza that is Comic-Con, to recall this one. Zanuck’s producing of the shark-tinged classic helped create the summer tent pole while birthing the career of one Steven Spielberg. Spielberg recounts his experience on “Jaws” in a statement to Movies Now: “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. 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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“Driving Miss Daisy." Race was still a charged topic when this story about the unlikely relationship between a widower and a chauffeur came out in 1989. But the movie told a gentle story and enabled a conversation that had been taking place mostly out of sight, if it was taking place at all. While a more tender story than “Mississippi Burning,” another racially charged film of that era, it was nonetheless a classic and paved the way for"The Help" and other modern Hollywood takes on race relations.
“Big Fish.”Yes, it’s not even a standout among Burton-philes, let alone Zanuck movies. But the poignant story of father-son love was emblematic of how the producer could not only nurture directors but also help them tap into new sensibilities. It was, in other words, pure Zanuck.
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