Darryl F. Zanuck was the epitome of a self-made man. He was not an educated man in the classical sense, was not an actor or director, but nevertheless he left an indelible mark on the history of the American movie industry. He was the producer of about 200 films during a 25 year period from 1925 to 1970. He is also the co-founder of one of the major film studios, Twentieth Century Fox, and was creative in both plot development, plot selection, script writing and actor selection.
Zanuck was born in Wahoo, Nebraska on September 5, 1902. He was the son of a hotel keeper of Dutch descent. When he was six years old he moved with his mother to Los Angeles, California, where the climate might be helpful with her health problems. While there, Zanuck's mother found him his first job in the movies as a walk-on when he was only eight years old. While he was growing up in California with his mother, his father became concerned about Darryl growing up without his father's presence. His father therefore decided to have him return to Nebraska. After having enjoyed California, he was unhappy in Nebraska, and at age 15 lied about his age and he joined the Nebraska National Guard, and ended up serving in France during the First World War.
When the war ended Zanuck was only 18 years old. He found work in a variety of part time jobs and did some creative writing in his free time. At first he was not very successful, but in 1922 he was able to sell his first story, a movie plot, to a Hollywood producer. Some time later he was able to find work with Warner Brothers as a script writer and wrote stories for the movie plots of "Rin Tin Tin", a widely popular movie series about a World War I canine hero. His work was appreciated at Warner Brothers, and with his administrative acumen for studio management, he became a studio manager in 1928, and later became chief of production, essentially the right hand man of Jack Warner. At that time the film studios were getting involved with sound and Zanuck was instrumental in making the change over to sound successful for Warner Brothers.
So, in 1927 Zanuck was an executive producer and initiated the sound era for Warner Brothers with "The Jazz Singer". In subsequent years he was responsible for "Little Caesar" in 1930, "The Public Enemy" in 1931, and "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" in 1932. He became so successful that he approached Jack Warner about sharing in the ownership of the Warner Brothers Studios. The answer he received was an unequivocal "No". So Zanuck wondered what to do next.
In 1933 Zanuck became the co-founder of Twentieth Century Pictures with the financial help of Joseph Schenck and William Goetz. In 1935, the trio bought out the near-bankrupt Fox Studios to form Twentieth Century Fox. Zanuck became the chief of production and the distribution of their films was done through United Artists. For the next 35 years, to the end of his film career, Twentieth Century Fox would be the home of Zanuck. The early years of the new production company were difficult. The depression was not helpful for the film industry, and no notable films were made during the remainder of the thirties.
It was not until 1940 that Zanuck was able to produce a major film. "The Grapes of Wrath" was the first one. It was followed in 1941 by "How Green Was My Valley". During the World War II years Zanuck served in the U.S. Army as a documentary producer, but before he enlisted, in 1943, he was able to produce "The Oxbow Incident", a dark and troubling movie about death and violence in America. It was not a money maker at the time, but continued to be shown in high schools across the country for the next 60 years.
After the war Zanuck was able to produce such blockbusters as "Twelve O'Clock High" in 1949, and "All about Eve" in 1950. Zanuck took a long sabbatical in 1956 to become an independent producer in Europe. He did this for six years. In 1962 he returned to Twentieth Century Fox as its president, after its disastrous production of "Cleopatra" in 1962. Under his new guidance the studio prospered with such memorable movies as "The Longest Day" in 1962, "The Sound of Music" in 1965, "Sand Pebbles" in 1966, "Planet of the Apes" in 1968 and "Tora! Tora! Tora!" in 1970.
In 1962 Zanuck had made his son Richard D. Zanuck head of production while he was serving as president of Twentieth Century Fox. Around 1969 he became involved in a power struggle with the Board of Directors and his son about the direction of the studio. The senior Zanuck lost out and he resigned in 1971.
During his illustrious 35 year career Zanuck had produced about 200 movies, he had been the writer or co-writer of 57 movies, the production manager of 19 movies prior to 1951, the director of only three movies and the actor in only one of his films. Up until his retirement he had been the major force in Twentieth Century Fox, and probably deserves the major credit for its success during those years.
Darryl F. Zanuck was born with the name Darryl Simon Michael Barnes in Wahoo, Nebraska. He changed it to Darryl F. Zanuck early in his life, probably when he lied about his age to join the Nebraska National Guard. He either was abandoned, or felt abandoned, by his parents when he was only 13. It is reported that he was the product of an unhappy marriage, and that may have had quite a bit to do with his decision to join the army.
Zanuck was married to Virginia Fox Zanuck. The couple divorced in 1956. The couple's son Richard D. Zanuck followed in the footsteps of his father and became the head of production at Twentieth Fox when his father became president in 1962. After Zanuck's retirement Richard D. Zanuck became a major independent producer and remained in film production for decades.
Richard F. Zanuck passed away in Palm Springs, California on December 22, 1979. He died from pneumonia. He was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in the Westwood Village section of Los Angeles, California.
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