You don’t have to look far to see how Richard Zanuck pervades popular culture. It’s not just that as a producer he helped make decades of successful films (and more than a few failures), or that his admirers include Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman. It’s that he changed both film culture and culture at large.
That’s in Don’t Say No Until I Finish Talking, a documentary about Zanuck premiering at 8 p.m. Wednesday on Turner Classic Movies. But there’s much more, in and out of the film, that should make you want to watch.
Zanuck was behind Jaws, which for good and ill ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster (and just look at what’s hitting theaters in the weeks ahead to see what that era has included) and so changed movies and moviegoing.
If you have read about John Logan’s I’ll Eat You Last, a play about one-time Hollywood super-agent Sue Mengers, then you may have noticed that Logan met Mengers at a party in Zanuck’s house. If you watch Mad Men, you saw it make use of the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes — which Zanuck ushered along while an executive at 20th Century Fox.
That studio, by the way, was once the fiefdom of Zanuck’s father, Darryl, and it was there that the younger man learned the basics of show business before going on to equal and even surpass his father’s accomplishments. Not before a power struggle, in which the son was fired, but family matters come up again and again in the documentary. (A biography of Darryl Zanuck was called Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking.)
The documentary, with Spielberg as an executive producer, consists largely of interviews with Richard Zanuck, who died in July 2012. (The production ends with the note that Zanuck saw Don’t Say No and wrote a typically gracious note to the filmmakers a few days before dying of a heart attack.) In those talks, he discusses his work, some of his relationships, his drinking (which stopped rather young), his brawling early days, and the making of some of the films on his resume.
He did not pretend to make high art all the time. At Fox and later in partnership with David Brown and on his own, he mixed profit-generating escapism (Willie Dynamite!) with Oscar-winning works like The Sting and Driving Miss Daisy. But he did develop a reputation for treating people decently, even when his job included firing Judy Garland from Valley of the Dolls. And admirers interviewed in the film include his third wife, Lili Fini Zanuck; his two sons, Eastwood, Freeman, Spielberg, Burton, Johnny Depp and more. Appreciation and anecdotes abound.
Besides showing Don’t Say No at 8 and again at 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, TCM will show three Zanuck films: Driving Miss Daisy at 9:45 p.m., then Cocoon at 1:15 a.m. Thursday and Compulsion at 3:30 a.m.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.