UPDATED: The producer who won Best Picture Oscars in three different decades died tonight in the Bay Area. Saul Zaentz was 92. He won the Academy’s biggest prize for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Amadeus (1984) and The English Patient (1996), and produced such other films as The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, Goya’s Ghosts and the 1978 animated version of The Lord Of The Rings directed by Ralph Bakshi. He also received the Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, the Producers Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award and BAFTA’s Academy Fellowship.
Over his long career, Zaentz produced several notable films adapted from literary works, including Cuckoo’s Nest (based on Ken Kesey’s novel), which earned he and then-young producer Michael Douglas five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was Douglas’ first feature film producing credit. Cuckoo’s Nest‘s Oscar wins were notable because it was the first film since 1934’s It Happened One Night to win all five top Oscar categories. It also earned Jack Nicholson and Douglas their first Academy Awards.
When he joined with Cuckoo’s Nest director Milos Forman again for 1984’s Amadeus, about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, they again swept the Academy Awards — this time winning eight including Best Picture, Director and Actor for F. Murray Abraham. And in 1997, Zaentz produced The English Patient, which for third time during his career led to a sweep of the Academy Awards, winning nine Oscars including for Best Picture, Best Director for Anthony Minghella (who died in 2008), a Best Actor nomination for the young Ralph Fiennes and Best Supporting Actress for Juliette Binoche (who worked with Zaentz years earlier in The Unbearable Lightness of Being).
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Never one to shy away from what he believed in, Zaentz became involved in a heated battle for many years with Miramax Films over monies owed from The English Patient and was outspoken about it not only for himself but on behalf of the actors and his director Minghella. But that was not his first legal wrangling. He was unafraid and unabashed to go head to head against companies for artists and himself. He also always went on the record with journalists, never hiding behind anonymity. He led a colorful and eventful life and was part of the Greatest Generation of those who served in the Army in World War II and, at one point, he made a living as a gambler. He was born Feb. 28, 1921, in Passaic, N.J., and relocated to St. Louis during his teens before moving to San Francisco.
Zaentz started his showbiz career in the music business, working concert tours with jazz men such as Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck. In 1955, he joined Fantasy Records. Twelve years later, he and a group of investors bought out the music company and would grow it into the largest jazz record label in the world. The label also recorded comedian Lenny Bruce, who was known for breaking down barriers with his vulgar stream-of-consciousness rants on politics and sex. The Bay Area label had modest success with jazz artists like Brubeck until a local act on its roster changed its name from the Golliwogs to Creedence Clearwater Revival and became an international smash. Zaentz used his Fantasy Records earnings to get into a second career as a Hollywood producer, but not before he and Creedence frontman John Fogerty, would wage epic court battles over the band’s publishing. He later would turn around and sue Fogerty for defamation over the song “Zanz Kant Danz”, from the singer’s 1985 solo album Centerfield, which resulted in the change of the title and lyric to “Vanz Kant Danz.” (The original lyric, repeated many times during the song, was “Zanz can’t dance, but he’ll steal your money/Watch him or he’ll rob you blind.”) A copyright infringement lawsuit over another track from that album — the Top 10 single “The Old Man Down the Road” — alleged that Fogerty had copied the melody from “Run Through the Jungle,” a 1970 Creedence song to which Zaentz held the rights. That case went all the way to the Supreme Court, with Fogerty prevailing.
Litigation turned out to be a recurring theme in Zaentz’s life: His company and Warner Bros remain in a battle with the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien and publisher HarperCollins over copyright and merchandising rights related to the author’s The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings.
His last film was Goya’s Ghosts (2006), also directed by Forman and staring Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgård. He also produced At Play In The Fields Of The Lord and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the latter based on the Milan Kundera novel. The film starred Daniel Day-Lewis, Binoche and Lena Olin. He also executive produced The Mosquito Coast, starring Harrison Ford.
In 1996, Zaentz was honored with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which is given to “creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production,” joining the ranks of such legendary producers as Cecil B. DeMille, William Wyler, Alfred Hitchcock, and Billy Wilder. Some of the films he produced are epic in nature and scope and are still studied by film students. Years later, in 2003, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts would honor Zaentz with its highest award — the Academy Fellowship – to honor his body of work. And then in 1994, won the Producer’s Guild lifetime achievement award.