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R.I.P. Saul Zaentz

saul-zaentzSaul Zaentz, the producer who won Best Picture Oscars in three different decades has died in the Bay Area, Indiewire reports. Saul Zaentz was 92. He won the Academy’s biggest prize for the classic 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 Ghost and the 1978 animated version of The Lord Of The Rings directed by Ralph Bakshi. He also received the Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg 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 the 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 Nests 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.

Then in 1984, when he joined with Cuckoo’s Nest director Milos Foreman again for Amadeus about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, they once again swept the Academy Awards winning eight Oscars this time winning best picture, best director and best 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 passed in 2008), best actor for the young Ralph Fiennes and best supporting actress for Juliette Binoche (who worked with Zaentz years earlier in The Unbearable Lightness of Being).

Never one to shy away from what he believe in, he 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. This was a man who stood up for what he believed in and 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. but relocated to St. Louis during his teens before moving to San Francisco.

one_flew_over_the_cuckoos_nest_ver3Zaentz started his showbiz career in the music business, working concert tours with jazzmen 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 conscious 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 became an international smash. He used his Fantasy Records earnings to get into a second career as a Hollywood producer but not before Zaentz and Credence’s leader, John Fogerty, would wage epic court battles over Creedence’s publishing and some of Fogerty’s solo songs, the latter case going all the way to the Supreme Court.

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.

one_flew_over_the_cuckoos_nest_ver2His last film was Goya’s Ghosts, also directed by Milos Forman and starred Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgård. He also produced At Play in the Fields of the Lord and The Unbearable Lightness of Being based on the Milan Kundera novel of the same name. The film starred Daniel Day-Lewis, Binoche and Lena Olin. He also executive produced The Mosquito Coast which starred 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 Cecille 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 award Zaentz its highest award — the Academy Fellowship – to honor his body of work. And then in 1997, won the Producer’s Guild lifetime achievement award.

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