Darryl F. Zanuck

Active - 1924 - 1970  |   Born - Sep 5, 1902 in Wahoo, Nebraska, United States  |   Died - Dec 22, 1979   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, Romance, Musical, Adventure

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Biography by Bruce Eder

One of the most successful and respected movie moguls of Hollywood's Golden Age, Darryl F. Zanuck was also one of the few major players of his age who was not born in Europe. Hailing from Wahoo, NE, Zanuck first entered the movie business as a child extra in 1908. After service in World War I (he lied about his age to join the Nebraska National Guard) and a period spent as a bantamweight boxer, he turned to writing, while scratching out a living as a store clerk and waterfront laborer. With some modest success in magazines, he began sending stories into the movie studios. Zanuck joined Warner Bros. as a staff writer in 1923 and distinguished himself with his unusual plots. By 1928, he had been elevated to studio manager and became chief of production the following year, and was largely responsible for the shape of the studio's output during the late '20s and early '30s, including such notable scripts as The Public Enemy (1931) and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), as well as the celebrated transitional talkie Noah's Ark (1929), which Zanuck produced personally. He left Warner Bros. in 1933 to form a new studio, 20th Century Pictures, with Joseph Schenck, which began an ambitious production schedule. Fate took a hand the following year when 20th Century -- which was profitable, but had no studio facilities of its own -- merged with William Fox's near-bankrupt Fox Studios to form 20th Century Fox, with Zanuck as chief of production. He immediately set the newly expanded company on an ambitious production schedule, which included not only the exploitation of existing stars such as Shirley Temple, but the establishment of new leading men such as Tyrone Power in big-budget films. In the process, he also brought over many of his most trusted hands from Warner Bros., including publicist (and later producer) Milton Sperling, who was Jack Warner's son-in-law. Zanuck had a special knack for understanding the public taste, and visualizing the right actor in the right role, such as casting Basil Rathbone -- previously known for his villain parts -- as Sherlock Holmes (although he stopped making the Holmes films after two films, thus giving Universal Pictures an opening to produce another dozen Holmes films with Rathbone and his co-star, Nigel Bruce). He also had blindspots where certain performers and film properties were concerned. Following an argument with Zanuck, actor/director Otto Preminger was barred from work on the Fox lot until Zanuck went off to military service. Preminger then returned, first as an actor and then as director of the movie version of his own Broadway hit, Margin for Error. Preminger later produced and directed Laura, despite Zanuck's misgivings about the project and his dislike of the fey Clifton Webb in the key role of Waldo Lydecker. One of the few production chiefs who actually had experience making movies, Zanuck was overall a highly respected figure, who took an active and productive role in the making of many of Fox's biggest films. In the early '50s, with the arrival of television as competition, he moved Fox to adapt CinemaScope, the first of the widescreen formats, to keep movies competitive -- although it didn't fit every production (Daddy Long Legs and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit were especially awkward). Also, the decision to shoot its films in widescreen caused Fox to lose such productions as On the Waterfront. The company's films remained competitive, and the presence of stars such as Marilyn Monroe kept Fox among the top Hollywood studios until the end of the 1950s. Zanuck left Fox at the end of the 1950s to embark on a career as an independent producer, and made his most celebrated film, The Longest Day (1962), a sprawling all-star dramatization of the Normandy landings on D-Day. He returned to Fox soon after, amid the crisis caused by the enormous cost overruns surrounding Cleopatra, and saw several more years of success at the head of the company (with his own son, Richard, as chief of production) until the dawn of the 1970s, when business reverses resulted in his being forced out of power. Richard Zanuck has since emerged as a major independent producer.

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  • Made his film debut at age 8 as an extra in a silent western.
  • Abandoned by both of his parents when he was a teenager, he lied about his age and joined the Nebraska National Guard; served in France and Belgium during World War I.
  • Aspired to be a writer and in 1919 moved to L.A. to work in motion pictures.
  • In 1923, he was hired by Warner Bros. as a screenwriter for Rin Tin Tin; under a number of pseudonyms, he wrote more than 40 film scripts.
  • Was promoted to studio manager in 1928 and just a year later was named head of production.
  • In 1933, he resigned from Warner Bros. and formed 20th Century Pictures with Joseph Schenck; two years later the company merged with Fox Film Corporation and became 20th Century Fox.
  • During WWII, he re-enlisted in the Army and reached the rank of colonel.
  • Resigned from 20th Century Fox in 1956 and moved to Europe to become an independent producer; he returned to the studio in 1962 and remained involved with the company until 1971. 
  • Over his career he produced more than 165 motion pictures, wrote or co-wrote nearly 60, and introduced many film stars, including James Cagney, Henry Fonda and Shirley Temple.