Saul Zaentz, 1921–2014

The producer who put literature on the screen

By the time Saul Zaentz turned to producing films in his 50s, he’d already ridden in boxcars, tried his hand at chicken farming, and made a fortune in the music business. So he came to Hollywood with a fresh eye. “I don’t worry about what everyone wants to see,” he once said. “I make movies that please a writer, director, and myself.” That approach earned him three Best Picture Oscars for highly literate movies that made money.

Born in New Jersey to Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe, Zaentz “ran away from home at 16 and made a living selling peanuts at the St. Louis Cardinals training camp and as a gambler,” said Variety. After serving in the wartime Army in North Africa and Sicily, he studied chicken husbandry at Rutgers University. After quickly souring on that, he headed to San Francisco for a job in the recording business, moving up until he was able to buy Fantasy Records and sign “a promising country-rock group called the Golliwogs.” The band later took the name Creedence Clearwater Revival and sold millions of records of such hits as “Proud Mary” and “Down on the Corner.” Creedence helped make Zaentz rich, partly thanks to a bitter and protracted rights battle he fought—and won—against lead singer John Fogerty.

Then Zaentz turned to movies. “In a Hollywood environment in which brilliant businessmen spend their lives trying to anticipate the predilections of teenage boys, Zaentz was an anomaly, a producer of smart and ambitious films for a grown-up audience,” said the San Francisco Chronicle. He hired then obscure Czech director Milos Forman to make One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and won his first Best Picture Oscar; nine years later the two collaborated on Amadeus, which won him his second. The English Patient won nine Oscars in 1995, including his third for Best Picture. Zaentz had flops, too, said the Los Angeles Times, such as his animated version of The Hobbit. But he built a firm legacy on his good taste and “abundance of chutzpah.”

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