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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Dick Zanuck reveals his secret recipe for surviving studio turmoil

January 21, 2010 |  1:15 pm

When you've worked with practically every movie star imaginable and won virtually every award in the business, I guess that you don't sweat the small stuff. So when Dick Zanuck and I had lunch earlier this week at his favorite old-school Toscana eatery in Brentwood, the 75-year-old producer hardly seemed fazed by the fact that nearly every executive he'd dealt with at Disney in the two years it took for him and Tim Burton to make "Alice in Wonderland" has disappeared from the studio lot. That includes studio chief Dick Cook and production chief Oren Aviv, who were actually the ones who talked Burton into doing the picture in the first place.

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Imagine what it must be like having a huge, crowd-pleasing film on the runway, just six weeks away from its March 5 opening, being released by a studio that still doesn't have a head of marketing, having fired its former marketing president late last fall. When Burton recently asked Zanuck to tell the studio that he would be a little delayed in showing off his final cut of the film, it took Zanuck a while to figure out just who to call.

But if the veteran producer was worried, he wasn't showing it. It turns out that if you've been making movies for half a century--the first film Zanuck produced was 1959's "Compulsion"--you've seen a lot of studio tumult and upheaval. After all, when Zanuck was head of production at 20th Century Fox in the 1960s, he was fired--by his own father. And in fairness to Disney, Zanuck said he had a nice talk with the studio's new production chief, Sean Bailey, a former producer himself who put Zanuck at ease. "He seems like a good guy," Zanuck told me. "It felt reassuring to know there's someone in the job who's actually been on a film set."

So what kind of rocky times has Zanuck been through with studios over the years? One of his favorite stories involves the making of "The Verdict," the Paul Newman-starring legal thriller that was released in 1982 by 20th Century Fox. As Zanuck recalls, the studio was in turmoil, having recently been taken over by oil baron Marvin Davis, who was so clueless about the inner workings of his new possession that he was astounded to discover that Jerry Lansing--the man he thought was his head of production--was actually Sherry Lansing, one of Hollywood's pioneering female executives.

Zanuck had been developing "The Verdict," a bestseller that was being adapted by writer-director James Bridges as a starring vehicle for Robert Redford. It was supposed to be a cozy partnership, especially since Redford was an old pal of Zanuck's, having starred in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" at Fox when Zanuck was still running the studio. But Redford and Bridges had an explosive falling out over script issues. Even though Bridges was a hot filmmaker, having just made "Urban Cowboy," he hardly had the clout to contest one of Hollywood's most lauded movie stars. 

But amazingly, Zanuck sided with Bridges and fired Redford. "I called Sherry and told her what I'd done and she wasn't very happy," Zanuck recalls. "She said, 'I can't believe you did that. Robert Redford is Marvin Davis' favorite actor. You just turned a go picture into a development deal.' " To make matters worse, instead of being eternally grateful, Bridges called up Zanuck and said, "I can't take all this fighting. It's just too much for me. I'm walking."

Zanuck was astounded. "Wait a minute," he said. "I just sided with you over Robert Redford and now you're quitting?" But Bridges was gone. So was Redford, even though Zanuck says that Redford's agent at the time--Michael Ovitz--was so furious with Zanuck that he told him that he'd never get any top actor to replace him. "He actually told me, 'Dick, whoever you want to play that part is an actor that I represent, so you won't be getting anyone for the part,' which I interpreted as a threat."

In the end, Zanuck went around Ovitz and took the project to Paul Newman, who agreed to star in the film, which ended up being directed by Sidney Lumet (with a screenplay by David Mamet). And the lesson to all this? "Sherry ended up sticking with us through it all," Zanuck says. "We made a good movie and the studio was happy to get behind it. If you make a good movie, all the other crazy stuff ends up being water under the bridge."

Photo: Dick Zanuck. Photo credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times

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