Born in the affluent, northeast Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Illinois, filmmaker/journalist Edward Zwick received his formal training in the cinematic arts at the AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles. After stints as a journalist and editor at The New Republic and Rolling Stone, Zwick worked on the hit ABC series Family as story editor, scripter, director and producer. Launched in early March 1976, this low-key prime time soaper about the bourgeois, Pasadena-based Lawrence family - Doug (James Broderick), Kate (Sada Thompson), Nancy (Meredith Baxter-Birney), Willie (Gary Frank) and Buddy (Kristy McNichol) - became an instant hit and lasted several seasons, before wrapping in the summer of 1980.
After helming the made-for-TV screwball comedy Having it All (1982), starring Dyan Cannon, and the hit small screen meller Paper Dolls, a telemovie about a nepotistic, NY-based modeling and cosmetics dynasty (which spun off an unsuccessful series in fall 1984, to which Zwick was unconnected). Zwick teamed (in what would be the first in an endless series of collaborations) with Marshall Herskovitz, to co-produce the innovative 1983 telemovie Special Bulletin. This low-budget drama examines how a (South Carolina-based) local news station might respond to the imminent threat of a nuclear war by five terrorist protesters. Zwick directed, and to enhance the realism, shot the motion picture on video tape, consulting extensively with NBC news correspondents for technical advice.
In 1986, Zwick briefly struck out on his own as a director (independently of Herskovitz) with About Last Night..., a surprisingly soft-pedaled filmization of the David Mamet stage play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, adapted by Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue, about the off-again, on-again romance of a couple of Windy City lovers, Danny and Debbie (played by former Brat Packers Rob Lowe and Demi Moore), as they are unduly influenced by two friends, the beer swilling, misogynistic hellraiser Bernie (Jim Belushi) and the icewater-veined misandrist "gal pal" Joan (Elizabeth Perkins). Produced for the newly-formed Tri-Star, the picture became an instant blockbuster.
Zwick's next major outing arose the following year, when he re-teamed with Herskovitz to produce, write and direct the hit ABC series thirtysomething. This ensemble dramedy documented the comings and goings of a bunch of young urban professionals in the Philadelphia area, including Michael (Ken Olin), Hope (Mel Harris), Elliot (Timothy Busfield), Nancy (Patricia Wettig, Melissa (Melanie Mayron), Ellyn (Polly Draper), Gary (Peter Horton) and Miles (David Clennon), as they balanced individual dreams with personal responsibilities. As a nearly perfect example of a series aimed at one exact demographic, thirtysomething swept "yuppie" viewers off of their feet and immediately attained a cult following, running for well over four seasons.
In 1989, Zwick directed the critically acclaimed drama Glory (from a script by Herskovitz and Kevin Jarre), and received a Golden Globe for his efforts. This ensemble period piece, about the first all-black regiment in the Civil War, with an A-list cast including Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick and Cary Elwes, grossed dollar one, won the hearts of critics, and reeled in a best picture nod - no small feat for a director's sophomore big screen outing, but completely unsurprising given Zwick's intelligence and pedigree. Unfortunately, the director's follow-up, the 1992 Leaving Normal, didn't fare nearly as well. This quirky, low-budget road comedy - about a waitress and a stripper who team up and leave their lives behind, hitting the highway to Alaska - was overshadowed by the similarly-themed and plotted Thelma and Louise the year prior.
Zwick bounced back, so to speak, (and returned to "period territory") with the 1994 picture Legends of the Fall, starring the formidable team of Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt, Aidan Quinn, Henry Thomas and Julia Ormond. This picture - about the sweeping changes wrought in the lives of a military man's sons, just prior to and during World War I - became another megahit as well.
In 1996, Zwick directed the hit Gulf War drama Courage Under Fire, starring Meg Ryan and Denzel Washington. He followed it up with The Siege (1998), a terrifyingly prescient action-thriller about a bunch of Islamic militants unleashing a torrent of wrath on Manhattan; it opened to solid box office but most critics regarded it as only mediocre The following year, he created the television drama Once and Again, which, though it attained a cult following, never quite managed to reel in a wide enough audience to stay afloat; after several stops and starts, it finally wrapped in 2003.
In the wake of the setback, he returned to directing for the first occasion in five years, helming his second Civil War-era action drama, The Last Samurai. Starring Tom Cruise as a 19th century American who travels to the Far East to train Japanese troops, the film was a modest financial success domestically and an even bigger one internationally, and received four Academy Award nominations. Though The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King maintained the spotlight on Oscar night, The National Board of Review honored Zwick as Best Director.