Pre-eminent as an independent producer and former studio head, Zanuck earned countless awards and citations for his achievements in his more than 40 years of filmmaking. Among them, perhaps the most significant and the one that bears the greatest testament to his well-earned stature, was the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which was bestowed upon him and long-time associate David Brown in 1991. This illustrious accolade, given only 36 times in the Academy’s history, recognized Zanuck as “a creative producer whose body of work reflects a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” A precedent-setting honor and personal milestone, this particular Thalberg Award made Zanuck the only second-generation recipient ever, in company with his father, Darryl F. Zanuck.
Only one year prior, Zanuck, along with wife Lili Fini Zanuck, took home an Oscar as producer of the Academy Award-winning Best Picture of 1989, Driving Miss Daisy, for which he also received a Golden Globe Award, The National Board of Review Award and Producer of the Year honors from the Producers Guild of America. Zanuck’s Driving Miss Daisy win set another industry precedent—making Richard and Darryl Zanuck the only father and son in motion picture history to both win Best Picture Oscars.
As head of his own production entity, The Zanuck Company, in which he was partnered with his wife, Zanuck continued a successful career forged on a solid foundation. Upon graduation from Stanford University and military service as an army lieutenant, Zanuck joined his father as a story and production assistant on two 20th Century Fox films, Island in the Sun and The Sun Also Rises. At 24, he made his debut as a full-fledged producer with the feature film Compulsion, which went on to win the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for the ensemble work of its stars Orson Welles, Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman. He followed that with Sanctuary, based on the William Faulkner novel and The Chapman Report directed by George Cukor.
At 28, Zanuck was named president in charge of production of 20th Century Fox and became the then-youngest corporate head in the Hollywood annals. During his eight years at the helm, the studio recaptured the luster of its heyday and received an unprecedented 159 Oscar nominations. Three of the films, The Sound of Music, Patton and The French Connection, went on to win Best Picture of the Year Oscars. Other successes include the Planet of the Apes series, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and M*A*S*H.
Zanuck subsequently moved from Fox to become senior executive vice-president at Warner Bros., where he and soon-to-be partner David Brown oversaw production of such box office hits as The Exorcist and Blazing Saddles.
With the formation of the Zanuck/Brown Co. in 1971, one of the motion picture industry’s most distinguished and successful independent production entities was born. Over the ensuing decade and a half, Zanuck/Brown was responsible for such critical and box office hits as Jaws, a triple-Oscar winner and Best Picture nominee; Jaws II; The Sugarland Express, the Best Screenplay winner at the Cannes Film Festival and Steven Spielberg’s first feature directorial effort; The Sting, winner of seven Academy Awards including Best Picture; and The Verdict, nominated for five Academy Awards. Along with Lili Fini Zanuck, Zanuck/Brown also produced the double Oscar winner Cocoon and its sequel Cocoon: The Return.
The Zanuck Company, formed in 1988, scored a phenomenal success with its debut production Driving Miss Daisy. Nominated for nine Academy Awards and winner of four, including Best Picture, the Pulitzer Prize winning play-turned-feature film grossed in excess of $100 million at the domestic box office and, with its cost of $5 million, now ranks as one of the most profitable releases in Warner Bros. history.
Zanuck followed up the major success of Driving Miss Daisy with the critically acclaimed Rush starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patric, based on the best-selling book by Kim Wozencraft. The film marked the directorial debut of Lili Fini Zanuck, and its score by Eric Clapton (“Tears in Heaven”) became one of the most acclaimed of 1992.
Other producing credits with Lili Fini Zanuck include Rich in Love which reunited the Driving Miss Daisy creative team of the Zanucks with director Bruce Beresford and writer Alfred Uhry, and Wild Bill, Walter Hill’s fact-based look at the legendary frontiersman Wild Bill Hickok. The film starred Oscar nominee Jeff Bridges and won widespread critical acclaim, as did Mulholland Falls, a drama set in the fifties about a team of elite L.A. police officers featuring an all-star cast including Nick Nolte, Melanie Griffith and John Malkovich.
Deep Impact, Zanuck’s release for DreamWorks SKG and Paramount, grossed $350 million worldwide, making it the first bona fide blockbuster of the 1998 summer season. Rules Of Engagement, which Zanuck produced with Scott Rudin, and starred Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel Jackson, Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley, was also successful.
In 1999, The Zanuck Company joined forces with Academy Award winner Clint Eastwood to produce True Crime, a suspense thriller based on Andrew Klavan’s best-selling novel, in which Eastwood also starred and directed for Warner Bros.
In March of 2000, Richard and Lili Zanuck produced the 72nd annual Oscar presentation, which garnered 9 Emmy nominations and earned the highest network rating in the last six years.
Zanuck’s re-imagining of Planet of the Apes, directed by Tim Burton, was released by 20th Century Fox in July 2001 and became one of the top-grossing films of that year in both the domestic and international markets. Burton and Zanuck went on to collaborate on five other films until Zanuck’s death in 2012: Big Fish starring Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange and Alison Lohman; the 2005 blockbuster Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the critically-acclaimed Golden Globe winner Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and blockbusters Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows.
Other projects from the Zanuck Company included DreamWorks’ critically acclaimed Road to Perdition directed by Sam Mendes, starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law, and the Warner Bros. blockbuster remake of Clash of the Titans, an epic 3-D action-adventure starring Sam Worthington, Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson, and directed by Louis Leterrier.