An outsized mega-film producer in the style of David O. Selznick, Samuel Bronston and Dino De Laurentiis, Saul Zaentz died Friday, January 3 at the age of 92.
Born in Passaic, New Jersey to Jewish immigrants, Zaentz became most familiar for the scant but major movies he produced, including “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Amadeus” and “The English Patient,” all of which won Oscars for Best Picture. His name is also on “The Mosquito Coast,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and, his final film, from 2005, “Goya’s Ghosts.”
His films mixed big budgets with big prestige. This is another way of saying they tended to be literary adaptations. Indeed, one of his major rights wins was “The Lord of the Rings,” which he acquired in the 1970s. He’s responsible for the 1978 animated version of the books, which only got up to roughly halfway through “The Two Towers.” Directed by Ralph Bakshi, it was made partly with rotoscoping, the technique in which animators draw over filmed actors. Zaentz was involved in legal battles over purported royalties involving the Peter Jackson-directed films of “Rings” and “The Hobbit.”
Though he’s most associated with film, his first love was music. In 1955, he joined Fantasy Records, then a jazz label. In the 1960s he purchased the label from founders Max and Sol Weiss and geared it more towards rock. His most famous pick-up was Creedence Clearwater Revival, a score that was to tarnish if not destroy Zaentz’s reputation.
CCR frontman John Fogerty — who had once been employed in the Fantasy warehouse — eventually realized he had signed away more rights than he had imagined. When he attempted to extricate himself from his contract, a long, bitter legal battle ensued between he and Zaentz, with the latter keeping rights to the songs Fogerty had himself penned.
Fogerty subsequently wrote several thinly-veiled attacks on Zaentz, including “Zanz Kant Denz” and “Mr. Greed,” both found on his “Centerfield” record. Zaentz tried, unsuccessfully, to sue for libel, as well as claiming the solo song “The Old Man Down the Road” was too close to “Run Through the Jungle,” which Zaentz owned. When Zaentz left Fantasy, Fogerty quickly re-signed with the label.
Zaentz had been suffering from Alzheimer’s in the final years of his life.