JAWS Producer, Richard Zanuck Dies At Age 77

Producer Richard Zanuck and Director Steven Spielberg on the set of JAWS.

Sad news today for fans of some of the greatest films of all time.  Legendary producer, Richard Zanuck, passed away on Friday after suffering a heart attack.  He was 77 years old.

Mr. Zanuck was the son of famed Twentieth Century Fox studio mogul Darryl Zanuck.  He was able to escape the impressive shadow of his father and make a name for himself in Hollywood as a producer in his own right.  He will most notably be known and remembered as the producer of Steven Spielberg’s JAWS, ushering in the age of what is now known as the summer blockbuster.  It was Richard Zanuck who truly gave Spielberg his start in theatrical motion pictures by collaborating on his first big film, The Sugarland Express.  Years later, the two would continue working together on several projects as producers.  (See our exclusive video with Richard Zanuck below speaking about working with a young Steven Spielberg.)

Steven Spielberg described Zanuck as “a director’s producer. He always feels his job is to protect the director.  Having run a studio for many years, he understood the corporate pressure put on filmmakers and yet he still turned out to be the filmmaker’s best friend.”

It was Zanuck who backed Spielberg for JAWS when Universal’s Lew Wasserman thought the director was too inexperienced to command such a difficult film.  When the production hit major setbacks, ballooning to twice its original $4.5 million budget, Zanuck stood his ground and protected Spielberg from being fired.  “I said to the (studio suits) who were threatening to come, ‘If I see one Lear jet coming into Martha’s Vineyard airport, we’re going to stop shooting,'” Zanuck said.

Throughout his career, Zanuck produced some of the biggest hits in Hollywood in addition to several award winners such as 1989’s Oscar-Winner for Best Picture, Driving Miss Daisy.  He also served as producer for Ron Howard’s Cocoon, Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition and several of Tim Burton’s films such as Planet of the ApesCharlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, and Dark Shadows.  He also won the Best Picture Oscar for producing 1973’s, The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

Richard Zanuck at the premiere of Tim Burton’s, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’.

In 1962, at the age of 28, he became the youngest production chief in Hollywood when he was appointed by his father as Executive VP in charge of production at Fox.  Years later, in a story that has become Hollywood lore, Zanuck’s father fired him during a board room coup in which the senior Zanuck regained control of the studio.  Under Zanuck’s watch at Fox, the studio released popular films, M*A*S*H, The Sound of Music and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Zanuck was currently working on a film called, Hidden, with Alexander Skarsgard and his death came as a surprise to many.  He is survived by his wife Lili Fini Zanuck, sons Harrison and Dean and nine grandchildren.

In Chicago on July 10, 2002, Richard Zanuck attended the red carpet premiere of the Tom Hanks film, Road to Perdition, which he produced alongside Steven Spielberg for Dreamworks.  Here is what Mr. Zanuck had to say when asked about working with Steven Spielberg at such a young age.

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