Dick Zanuck tells all about the great Hollywood merger that never happened
I love having lunch with Dick Zanuck, since it's hard to find anyone who's had a better perch to watch the unfolding Hollywood history, Son of fabled Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck and a Fox boss himself--until he was fired by his own father--Zanuck has carved out an enduring legacy as a producer, having made dozens upon dozens of films, notably "Jaws," "Cocoon," "Driving Miss Daisy," "Planet of the Apes," "Road to Perdition" and "Alice in Wonderland," which he told me has recently crossed the $1-billion mark in global box office.
Zanuck works regularly with Tim Burton, who is preparing to make "Dark Shadows" with Johnny Depp, which will start shooting early next year, as soon as the team gets a new script from "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer" author Seth Grahame-Smith. Even though he's 75, Zanuck has the energy of people half his age and always comes equipped with an intriguing take on the current trends in the business. But I love hearing his stories about Hollywood's glory days. Today I asked him if he knew Charlie Bluhdorn, the onetime czar of Gulf + Western. Nearly forgotten today, Bluhdorn was a near-mythic figure in his day, having bought Paramount in the mid-1960s and, after hiring the likes of Robert Evans and Stanley Jaffe, transformed it into the powerhouse studio of the 1970s, when it was cranking out films like "The Godfather," "Serpico" and "Chinatown."
Born in Vienna and known as the mad Austrian for his titanic rages, Bluhdorn made his first millions selling fan belts, hub caps and oil filters. But like everyone else, he had a yen for the movie business, even if he liked to torture his Paramount subordinates during meetings by saying, "While we've been sitting here, I made more money on sugar than Paramount made all year." Like corporate studio bosses of every era, Bluhdorn was always trying to figure out how to cut away the excess fat and make the business more lean. At one point in the early 1970s, he kicked all of the Paramount production staff off the lot and moved them into offices on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills, so he could rent out the lot to the highest bidders.
This is where Zanuck came in. As he told me over lunch, not long after Bluhdorn took control of Paramount in the '60s, the two men ran into each other at the Hotel Du Cap in Cannes. Bluhdorn was appalled by how much money was being wasted on distribution overhead. He assumed the same thing was happening to Zanuck over at Fox.
"I remember we were sitting on this rock, looking out at the Mediterranean, and Charlie goes, 'I'm new to this game, but the amount of money we're wasting everywhere is ridiculous. What if the two of us make our pictures together, so instead of having two distribution offices in Paris and London and Rome and everywhere else, we'd have just one. Think of the money we'd save.' " Zanuck remembers the two men talking until the sun went down and the stars came out. "We both shook hands and I said, 'Charlie, I'm pledging to do this.' And Charlie said, 'Great, get your head of distribution together with mine and we'll make it happen.' "
Of course, it didn't turn out to be that easy. There was a three-day meeting in New York where everyone haggled over whose guy would be fired in Tokyo and in Cairo and in Timbuktu. Finally, after everyone had decided on a new team plucked from the best talent at the two studios, Zanuck called Bluhdorn and said they were ready. "There's only one problem," Bluhdorn told him. "I own the company, so my part is easy. But you'll never get it past your board.' "
It's unclear whether Bluhdorn, a born hustler, had gotten a better offer or was just suddenly being pragmatic, but he was right--Fox's board refused to approve the deal. Undeterred, years later Bluhdorn went to Lew Wasserman and persuaded him to agree to the same arrangement, which resulted in the formation of UIP, the international distribution company run by Paramount and Universal that was restructured a few years ago.
Zanuck says that a few years later, when he lost his job at Fox, Bluhdorn was the first to call him, offering him a gig at Paramount. But by the time Zanuck flew to New York, the always impulsive Bluhdorn had changed his mind. When Zanuck showed up at the Paramount offices, he was told that Bluhdorn had called in sick--he was too embarrassed to tell Zanuck to his face that he'd had second thoughts. It's another great example of how little things change in Hollywood. Today, as back then, everyone is always eager to avoid confrontation.
Photo: Dick Zanuck at his Beverly Hills home earlier this year. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times