An esteemed member of the Oscar family was lost when Saul Zaentz died of Alzheimer’s at age 92 on Friday. Three times he’d won statuettes for producing Best Pictures: “The English Patient” (1995), “Amadeus” (1985) and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975).
Zaentz, originally hailing from Passaic, New Jersey, first broke into show business working for jazz record mogul Norman Granz. This eventually led to him purchasing Fantasy Records in 1967. The label’s big act was Creedence Clearwater Revival. However, the relationship between Zaentz and the band quickly turned sour with several legal battles between the two related to bad investments, plagiarism and character defamation.
Zaentz broke into the motion picture business after he saw a stage production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in San Francisco. He decided to produce a film adaptation along with Michael Douglas, whose father Kirk Douglas had held the movie rights for over a decade. The film was a huge success and ended up winning five Oscars. Along with the Best Picture prize for Zaentz and Douglas, it reaped Best Director (Milos Forman), Actor (Jack Nicholson), Actress (Louise Fletcher) and Adapted Screenplay. It was the first time a film had swept the top five races in 41 years after “It Happened One Night” did the same in 1934.
When Zaentz won again nine years later for “Amadeus,” it was also for a film directed by Forman. It swept eigth Oscars, including Best Director, Actor (F. Murray Abraham), Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup and Sound Mixing.
Zaentz would make one last big splash on Oscar’s stage in 1996 as producer of “The English Patient.” Zaentz had acquired the rights to the book before it was even published in 1992 and, after a rough road for four years, was finally released in 1996. The film took home nine Oscars including Picture for Zaentz, Directing (Anthony Minghella), Supporting Actress (Juliette Binoche), Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Score and Sound Mixing. That same year, Zaentz also received the Irving Thalberg Award for his life’s work as a producer. It was the first time in 44 years that the recipient of the Thalberg won the Best Picture prize in the same year. It had last happened in 1952 when Cecil B. DeMille received the Thalberg the same night his film “The Greatest Show on Earth” took the top prize.
In recent years, Zaentz has remained in the news as he had purchased some of the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien‘s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” in 1976. Zaentz had produced the animated version of “The Lord of the Rings” that was released in 1978. Zaentz was involved in with the back and forth of figuring out who would direct the live-action version of “The Hobbit.” He also received some scathing criticism for initiating legal actions against several small businesses in England that had used the term Hobbit in their name.
But Zaentz never forgot his roots or his home. His Zaentz Media Center remains one of only three major film production centers in Northern California, along with those owned by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. He also made reference to “the boys at Myrtle and Monroe” in his acceptance speeches for “Amadeus” and “The English Patient”. That intersection in Passaic, New Jersey is appropriately commemorated by a sign that reads “Saul Zaentz Corner.”