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One of the most prolific and accomplished moguls of Hollywood's Golden Age, Darryl F. Zanuck was the co-founder and primary force behind 20th Century Fox, and helped to shepherd the company from a start-up in the late 1920s to one of the greatest movie studios in film history. Under Zanuck's command as head of production and later chairman, Fox produced countless memorable motion pictures between 1934 and 1971, including Oscar winners "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940), "How Green Was My Valley" (1941), "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), "The King and I" (1958), "The Longest Day" (1962), "Planet of the Apes" (1968) and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969). Each of these films, along with dozens of others, benefitted from Zanuck's inherent skill at selecting projects that were both audience pleasers and quality pictures, and honing them from conception to release through careful nurturing of stars, scripts and directors. In doing so, he became an anomaly in the industry: a studio chief with eyes on both the bottom line and artistic merit. Though changing times eventually forced his ouster in the 1970s, Zanuck's exceptional list of productions made him one of the legendary movers and shakers in Hollywood history, and compared to his peers of the time, like Columbia's Harry Cohn and MGM's Louis B. Mayer, also one of the more pleasant of the Golden Age studio titans.
Darryl Francis Zanuck's early years were marked by sadness and a dogged determination to overcome the weight of those emotions. Born Sept. 5, 1902 in Wahoo, NE, he was the son of hotel owner Frank Zanuck and his wife, Louise Torpin. Their marriage was a disastrous one, marked by his father's alcoholism and his mother's ill health. At the age of six, he relocated to Los Angeles with his mother, who hoped that the drier climate would improve her condition. Zanuck was quickly packed off to military school, but frequently escaped to explore the new industry of motion pictures, which had captured his fascination. He made his film debut as an extra at the age of eight, playing a Native American girl in drag for a dollar a day. Zanuck was subsequently found out and shipped back to Nebraska to live with his father. In 1917, the 14-year-old Zanuck passed himself off as eighteen and joined the Nebraska National Guard. He was soon shipped off to the Mexican border before heading to France to serve as a messenger for the 163rd Division of the American Expeditionary Forces. After seeing combat on the frontlines during World War I, he returned to civilian life as an 18-year-old with little in the way of practical life experiences. He had learned to box while in the service, but had also seen some of his letters published in the military journal, Stars and Stripes. Despite his lack of education, he was determined to become a writer, and after moving to New York City, he labored in a variety of low-income jobs, including steelworker and boxer, before selling a story to Physical Culture magazine.
Flush with success, he headed to Los Angeles, where he again toiled in blue-collar jobs before finding financial security through an outdoor advertising company. He returned to writing and sold a story to the Fox Film Company for five hundred dollars. His next sale, based on his experiences as a salesman for the Yuccatone hair tonic company, earned him a position as a staff writer for Warner Bros. There, he wrote countless scripts under a variety of pseudonyms, including 1929's "Old San Francisco," and numerous adventures for the canine screen hero, Rin Tin Tin. While the scripts were never particularly notable from a technical standpoint, Zanuck had a knack for inventive scripting, as well as a decided interest in how his scripts were turned into films. He soon began to invest himself into the production and financial side of the business, and by 1927, he was the studio's manager. The following year, Zanuck rose to chief of production, the most powerful executive at the company. As chief of production, Zanuck broke ground on a number of significant films. He was the executive producer on "The Jazz Singer" (1928), which marked Warner's dominance in the new field of sound pictures. He also shepherded such landmark crime movies as "Little Caesar" (1930) and "The Public Enemy" (1931), as well as the modern musical, as epitomized by the iconic Busby Berkley film, "42nd Street" (1933).
Flush with a string of hits, he approached studio chief Jack Warner about becoming a partner in owning the studio. He was refused, and within 24 hours, Zanuck tore up his contract and joined forces with a group of industry titans, including United Artists president Joseph Schenck, Fox Films' William Goetz, silent movie comedian- turned-producer Raymond Griffith, and Schenck's brother, MGM CEO Nicholas Schenck, who provided much of the funding for the new entity known as 20th Century Pictures. Zanuck would be the new entity's chief of production, and Joseph Schenck's connection to UA provided them with distribution. Almost immediately, 20th Century began producing respected, if not financially successful pictures, starting with their first feature, "The House of Rothschild" (1934), which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. However, the company lacked its own production facility to release a seriously competitive roster of pictures. Schenck remedied that by brokering a merger with the larger but bankrupt Fox Studios, which also counted a sizable theater chain among its assets.
Now ensconced as head of production for 20th Century-Fox (the hyphen was dropped in 1985), Zanuck took a hard look at the company's strengths and weaknesses. Of the former, he saw only the production facility and theater chain, but the latter was rife with examples, including the recent death of Fox's biggest star, Will Rogers, the decline of Janet Gaynor, and the dismissal of its two most promising male leads, Spencer Tracy and James Dunn, both for alcoholism. Faced with such a predicament, it was Zanuck's innate skill at finding and developing talent and projects that helped to keep Fox afloat during its growing pains. From the Fox roster, he found two burgeoning stars, musical performer Alice Faye and a seven-year-old with extraordinary magnetism named Shirley Temple. Both performers helped to keep Fox's coffers afloat during the hard times of the Great Depression by starring in lightweight, relentlessly upbeat films that carried audiences away from their personal difficulties.
Zanuck also began to build an impressive stable of stars and directors for his projects, including Tyrone Power, the son of a famed silent movie star of the same name, Henry Fonda, Don Ameche, the gorgeous Gene Tierney, and a leggy blonde named Betty Grable who became the film industry's top attraction during World War II. Fonda was particularly well used in tandem with former silent film director John Ford in such mature Westerns and dramas as "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940), which earned Ford an Oscar, "The Return of Frank James" (1940) and "My Darling Clementine" (1946). Zanuck was an exceptionally hands-on executive when it came to his scripts, offering concepts and story ideas that, more often than not, improved the material. He also introduced such legends of European cinema as Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir to the Hollywood system, and used Technicolor during wartime when many studios balked at spending the money. The decision proved to be a smart one, and helped to turn the scarlet-tressed Maureen O'Hara into a star born for Technicolor.
Under Zanuck, Fox earned a reputation for producing intelligent, adult-minded dramas as well as bright, frothy musicals, both of which found favor with moviegoers. A partial list of their wartime releases read like a list of classic Hollywood features, including "Blood and Sand" (1941) with Power, the multi-Oscar-winning "How Green Was My Valley" (1941), "The Song of Bernadette" (1943), "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943), "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1945), "Kiss of Death" (1947), and "Twelve O'Clock High" (1949). During this period, Zanuck also served as a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army Signal Corps, where he produced training films and combat documentaries, including a photographic record of the Allied Command's assault against German forces in Africa. His experiences there would later inform a spate of exceptional wartime dramas, including "A Walk in the Sun" (1945) and "Halls of Montezuma" (1950).
Not all of Zanuck's decrees were met with the same level of success. He dropped the Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes series at the height of their popularity, and both went on to be box office draws for other studios. He also alienated talent, including actor-director Otto Preminger, who would score a major hit for Fox with 1944's "Laura." Zanuck was also one of Hollywood's leading proponents of the casting couch, which left a blemish on his otherwise flawless reputation. Despite these setbacks, Zanuck remained a rarity in the film business: a mogul whose active participation in his studio's output was met with not only financial success, but the respect and admiration of his peers and employees.
Zanuck took extraordinary chances with the studio in the late 1940s and 1950s, often with wildly varying results. He tackled taboo subjects like anti-Semitism, mental illness and racism in 'The Snake Pit" (1945), Best Picture Oscar winner "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947) and "Pinky" (1951), and continued to make musicals when the art form was in decline. However, Fox's efforts in that genre were moneymakers, including "Carousel" (1956) and "The King and I" (1958), which won nine Academy Awards. Less successful was his attempt to fend off the growing popularity of television with the CinemaScope process, which gave the impression of depth of field without the use of special glasses. It was a hit upon its debut with 1951's "The Robe," but soon proved to be a fad, and was eventually eclipsed by Panavision in the late 1960s. However, Zanuck's gambles yielded more hits than misses: among his success stories of the period were early starring roles for such future icons as Marlon Brando with "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951), Marilyn Monroe with "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953), Harry Belafonte in "Carmen Jones" (1954), Sam Fuller with "House of Bamboo" (1953), Jayne Mansfield in "The Girl Can't Help It" (1956) and Paul Newman in "The Long, Hot Summer" (1958). Zanuck also found hits in unlikely genres like science fiction with "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1955) and "The Fly" (1958), and continued to mine challenging subjects for stories, including teenage pregnancy with "Blue Denim" (1959) and shocking real-life murder cases like in "Compulsion" (1959). In fact it was Fox that Marilyn Monroe - who had replaced Grable as America's resident blonde bombshell - would call home throughout most of her brief career.
Such an expansive output eventually took its toll on Zanuck, and in 1956, he left Fox to become an independent producer in Europe. Many industry wags suggested that he had actually abandoned his post - and his wife, former actress Virginia Fox - over allegations of infidelity involving doomed actress Bella Darvi and scores of starlets. Whatever the case, he spent the next six years producing several unremarkable adventure films, including "The Roots of Heaven" (1958) and "Crack in the Mirror" (1960), most of which starred his then-current paramour, actress Juliette Greco.
In 1962, Zanuck embarked on his most ambitious project as producer, a massive, all-star World War II epic called "The Longest Day." A drama about the D-Day Invasion, "Day" starred a staggering cast of major actors from the United States, England, France and Germany, and featured no less than six directors, including uncredited turns behind the camera by Zanuck and co-star John Wayne. The completed film was slated for release by Fox, which was under the command of producer and theater chain owner Spyros P. Skouras, who was struggling with a pair of seemingly insurmountable production problems. The studio's historical epic "Cleopatra" (1963) had bled their coffers dry with its spiraling budget, and the romance between its stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, had generated reams of negative publicity. In an attempt to stem the tide of cash flowing out of the company, Fox had rushed in to produce a remake of "My Favorite Wife" (1940) with one of its most bankable stars, Marilyn Monroe. However, the project, "Something's Got to Give" (1962), had also run aground due to its star's psychological and substance issues. Skouras also wanted to push "Longest Day" into an abbreviated production schedule, but Zanuck, who remained the company's largest stockholder, cried foul, noting that a project like "Day" required considerable time and preparation in order to depict the events of D-Day with any accuracy. Sadly, it took the death of Monroe to convince Skouras to grant Zanuck the time and finances he needed to complete his movie. Released at over three hours in length, "Day" went on to become one of the most acclaimed World War II films ever made, and earned four Academy Awards.
Zanuck returned to Fox shortly after the film's release and delivered an eight-hour speech to the company's board of directors that convinced them to oust Skouras and return him as the head of Fox. He was soon installed as its chairman, and named his son Richard as president. One of his first actions was to seize control of "Cleopatra," which he rushed to completion. Zanuck then shut down the studio, instituted across-the-board layoffs, and devoted Fox's energies to crowd-pleasing, modestly budgeted films like "Surf Party" (1964), "Rio Conchos" (1964) and "Hush. Hush, Sweet Charlotte" (1964), all of which helped to rebuild its financial standing. By 1965, "The Sound of Music" truly ushered in Zanuck's second coming, with five Academy Awards and a box office take that was widely credited with saving the company.
Unfortunately, Fox under Zanuck in the 1960s seesawed between major hits and staggering failures. The company would release a spate of popular films, including "Batman: The Movie" (1966), "Fantastic Voyage" (1966) and "The Sand Pebbles" (1966), but lose their accumulated grosses through expensive flops like "Doctor Dolittle" (1967), which nearly brought Fox to its knees for a second time. There would be a handful of rebounds by the end of the decade, including "Planet of the Apes" (1968) and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969), but nearly all of its 1968 and 1969 releases were met with critical derision and a chilly box office, including "Star!" (1968), "The Magus" (1968), "The Chairman" (1969), "Che!" (1969) and "Staircase" (1969), with Rex Harrison and Richard Burton as homosexual lovers. The coup de grace was "Hello, Dolly!" (1969), which failed to recoup even half of its massive $25 million budget.
Having posted losses from 1969 to 1971, Zanuck found himself locked in a struggle with Fox's board of directors, which included his own son, Richard. Shortly after the doomed release of his Pacific Theatre epic "Tora! Tora! Tora" (1970), Zanuck was ousted as Fox's chairman in May of 1971. After reuniting with his wife, Virginia, whom he had never divorced, his health went into sharp decline, due largely in part from undiagnosed Alzheimer's disease. Zanuck succumbed to cancer of the jaw on Dec. 22, 1979, leaving behind an extraordinary chapter in the history of American film. Son Richard would soon follow in his footsteps as one-half of The Zanuck/Brown Company, which would oversee "Jaws" (1975), "Cocoon" (1985) and "Driving Miss Daisy" (1991), and later in conjunction with his wife, Lili Fini Zanuck, as producer of Tim Burton's remake of "Planet of the Apes" (2001) and "Alice in Wonderland" (2010). Among Zanuck's long list of accolades were no less than three Irving Thalberg Awards in 1938, 1945 and 1951, respectively, as well as an Oscar nomination for "The Longest Day" (1963), a Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America, the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Golden Globes in 1954, and the Best Foreign Film David for "The Longest Day."
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At age six, moved with mother to Glendale, California
Moved to L.A. to work in motion pictures
Hired by Warner Bros. as staff screenwriter for Rin Tin Tin
Made studio manager of Warner Bros.
Put in charge of production at Warner Bros.
Resigned from Warner Bros. after conflict over studio policy
Formed 20th Century Pictures with Joseph Schenck
20th Century combined with Fox Studios to form 20th Century-Fox
Served as chief of production at 20th Century-Fox
Became independent producer
Elected president of 20th Century-Fox
Became chairman and CEO of 20th Century-Fox, hired son as president
Fired son as president; held on to own position for less than a year
Resigned as CEO of 20th Century-Fox