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Saul Zaentz dies at 92; Oscar-winning producer of 'Amadeus,' 'Cuckoo's Nest'

January 04, 2014|David Ng, David Colker
  • Saul Zaentz produced "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Amadeus" and "The English Patient."
Saul Zaentz produced "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,"… (Paul Morse / Los Angeles…)

It would be hard to find someone who worked with three-time Oscar-winning movie and music producer Saul Zaentz and came out of it feeling neutral about him.

Some admired him, including director Milos Forman, who won Oscars for two Zaentz films, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus." "It was a wonderful collaboration," Forman said Saturday. "Usually there is some friction between the producer and director or whatever. But with him, never."

And then there is John Fogerty, songwriter and singer with Creedence Clearwater Revival. He is one of several people and companies who battled Zaentz in court over various matters, but the showdown with Fogerty was particularly nasty.

"The way I view Saul Zaentz and his henchmen … if I was walking down the street and those rattlesnakes were walking towards me, I would give them a wide berth," Fogerty told the New York Times in 2005.

But there is no denying that Zaentz was a fierce, independent powerhouse who fought for the projects he loved, even when far bigger companies dismissed them as non-commercial.

"I don't worry about what everyone wants to see," he told the Charlotte Observer in 2003. "I make movies that please a writer, director and myself. I always think there are enough people smart as me and sensitive as me."

Zaentz, 92, died Friday at his home in San Francisco. The cause was complications of Alzheimer's disease, said his nephew, Paul Zaentz.

He was a credited producer on nine films, beginning in 1975, after a successful run in the music business. Three of those films, including the first, "Cuckoo's Nest," won best picture Academy Awards.

He had flops, too, but as a hands-on producer, he took the blame. "You always think you got it, you're going to make a good picture," Zaentz told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. And when it fails, "You really feel terrible. You want to know what you did wrong. You want to know how you could've made a better picture and why you didn't make a better picture."

The reason he got to make literary, non-mainstream films in the first place, besides an abundance of chutzpah, was that he was willing to put his own resources on the line.

"He was not afraid to use his own money," Forman said. "If he used his own resources to develop a project, that made it his own."

Saul Zaentz was born Feb. 28, 1921, in Passaic, New Jersey, to Eastern European Jewish parents. As widely reported, he took to gambling at an early age. But Paul Zaentz, who also grew up in Passaic, said his uncle was not a high roller, at least not back then. "No one had that kind of money," he said.

Saul Zaentz enlisted in the Army during World War II, according to the Chronicle, and then studied animal husbandry at Rutgers University on the G.I. Bill, with an eye toward becoming a chicken farmer.

"It was a way to make a living," he told the newspaper. "I'd be my own boss."

Working for a bit on an actual chicken farm changed his mind about that, especially because of the long hours. He headed for San Francisco, where he pursued a career in the music business. After working for noted jazz producer Norman Granz, he began working at Fantasy Records, a small label which had recorded several jazz greats. Zaentz moved up the ranks to produce records and run various departments, and in 1967 he and investors bought the label.

The most successful band to come out of Fantasy was Creedence Clearwater Revival, fronted by Fogerty. But the relationship between Zaentz and Fogerty eventually became so toxic — over rights, fees and other matters — that it also pitted band members against each other, and lawsuits flew back and forth.

At one point, Zaentz filed a defamation lawsuit against Fogerty over the song "Zanz Kant Danz," which some believed depicted the producer as dishonest and greedy. The parties eventually settled out of court, and Fogerty changed the title of the single to "Vanz Kant Danz."

On Friday night, Fogerty posted a link to the song on his Facebook page. A spokesman for the musician said Fogerty had no comment on Zaentz's death.

With the success he achieved in music, Zaentz turned to the movie business. Veteran actor Kirk Douglas had been trying to get the Ken Kesey novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" made into a film for years, with no luck. Zaentz also loved the book — he and the actor's son, Michael, co-produced, hiring the Czechoslovakian director Forman, who had few credits in the U.S.

The film, released in 1975, took five Academy Awards, including for the producers, director and star Jack Nicholson, who played Randle P. McMurphy, a social misfit who causes trouble at a mental institution.

"Amadeus," with Forman again directing, gave him another personal hit in 1984. Based on the hit Peter Shaffer play, it depicted the rivalry between composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri.

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