I don't often talk about producers on this blog, and when I do it's not always in a positive light. But the sad news of Richard D. Zanuck's death, at the age of 77, provides an opportunity to redress the balance a little.
Film is very much a director's medium: directors get performances from actors to bring writers' work to life. Even if we take the view that film is a collaborative process, the director has the final say over all artistic matters on a film. But behind every director there is a producer, controlling the purse strings, brokering relations with the studio heads, keeping the director on their toes and always on the lookout for talent. Zanuck may not have the track record of someone like Roger Corman or Robert Evans, in terms of incubating talent or producing great work, but he did make contribute to the careers of several of Hollywood's biggest names.
Zanuck will probably be remembered most for winning the Best Picture Oscar for Driving Mr. Daisy, but a quick glance at the rest of his career shows far greater achievements than this. At 28 he became the youngest ever head of 20th Century Fox. He can take a lot of credit for making Steven Spielberg a big star, producing both The Sugarland Express and the mega-hit Jaws. Later in his career he became Tim Burton's producer of choice, working with him on all his projects from Planet of the Apes onwards (except Corpse Bride). Among his other credits are Ron Howard's Cocoon, William Friedkin's Rules of Engagement and Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition.
Zanuck's death is a great loss, and gives us a good opportunity to look back on his work. It is perhaps fitting that he lived to see the recent re-release of Jaws, which perhaps more than anything else demonstrates the impact he made on Hollywood. RIP.