Although he was more of a businessman than a film buff, Adolph Zukor, the longtime head of Paramount Pictures during its heyday, was a key figure in the development of the powerful studio system that ran Hollywood from the late '20s through the '60s. One of the very first studio moguls, Zukor's was truly a rags-to-riches story, and his success was borne of hard work, ambition, and a shrewd ability to understand the public's whimsical taste.
He was born in Risce, Hungary, where his family had to struggle to meet their basic needs. At age 16, Zukor immigrated to the U.S. and found a job working as a sweeper at a New York furrier. Within a few years, Zukor was running his own fur shop in Chicago. In 1903, Zukor branched out and bought an amusement arcade. Two years later, he and Marcus Loew teamed up to buy a chain of arcades. Eventually he became the treasurer to Loew's chain of movie theaters. It was Zukor who saw an enormous untapped fortune within the pockets of the upper and middle-class folk who considered moving pictures vulgar and refused to go to the tacky little theaters and arcades to see them. He figured that to get them to come to the theater, he would have to make going to the movies a more theatrical experience, complete with elaborate, comfortable movie houses, and longer, more dramatic films. To this end, he began distributing a four-reel European film, Queen Elizabeth. American audiences proved hungry for culture and Zukor made enough profit to found the Famous Players Production Company. Using the motto "Famous Players in Famous Plays," Zukor's company brought film adaptations of popular Broadway shows featuring well-known actors to theaters. Again it was a profitable venture that became even more so after he signed beautiful Mary Pickford, the actress who captured the nation's heart. She was Famous Players' headline star for years. Zukor merged his company with the Jess L. Lasky Feature Play company in 1916 thereby creating the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, where after a five-year struggle, Zukor became president. The company gained real power after it purchased the tiny Paramount distributions. Zukor took the name Paramount for the whole business and began buying up movie theaters until Paramount had a monopoly on making, distributing, and exhibiting films. Soon it became one of the biggest studios in Hollywood.
Interestingly, Zukor had almost nothing to do with the actual filmmaking process, preferring to run the company from New York so he could remain closely tied with the financial end. Paramount thrived until the early '30s, when financial woes nearly destroyed it. Though many wanted Zukor out, he tenaciously remained at the company's helm. In 1935 he was succeeded as president by Barney Balaban. Zukor then became chairman of the board, a position he would hold until his death at age 103 in 1976. Zukor substantially added to an already vast fortune when he bought into Gulf & Western Oil. In 1948, Zukor was awarded a special Oscar for his contribution to the industry. He published his autobiography, The Public Is Never Wrong, in 1953.