Sunday, July 22, 2012

Remembering Mr. Z

I was saddened to read of the passing of Richard Zanuck, film producer and one time head of 20th Century Fox.  What many of you may not know is that Richard Zanuck,  producer of Jaws and Driving Miss Daisy, once had a connection to animation, and I was part of it.

In 1993, the Zanuck Company began pre-production on a Betty Boop feature to be done through MGM Studios.  It was the baby of Richard Fleischer, veteran director of films such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,  and Fantastic Voyage.  His father was Max Fleischer, who, with Uncle Dave, created a studio which at one time rivaled Disney.  Their star was Betty Boop.  Richard Fleischer inherited the rights to Betty, and approached Zanuck, an old friend from their days at 20th Century Fox, to make a Betty Boop feature.

Jerry Rees and Steve Leiva were hired as producers and they, in turn, hired me to direct. We began the development process with a small crew in a Burbank office building.
There were weekly meetings at the Beverly Hills offices of The  Zanuck Company, in Richard's office.  My first time there, Richard Zanuck stepped out from behind a huge desk, shook my hand and said, "Dick Zanuck.  Nice to meet you."

I never, ever, called him Dick.  This man was Hollywood royalty.  He produced some of the best films ever done.  His father, Darryl F. Zanuck, MADE 20th Century Fox.  This was Richard Frikkin' Zanuck, man!  "Dick" was just way too familiar, too equal par, for a first time director from South Jersey.  I called him Mr. Z.  
Richard and Lili Zanuck winning Oscars for Driving Miss Daisy.
Entering his office, to the right, was a seating area with matching gold couch and chairs surrounding a heavy duty coffee table.  In the two dozen or so meeting I had there, the seating arrangement never changed.  As the last hired of the group, I got the only seat left - the ottoman.  To my left, sat Jerry Rees, then Steve Leiva. Lili Zanuck, Richard's wife and business partner, sat on the couch directly across from me.  To her left was Richard Fleischer (who also insisted on being called Dick), then Mr. Z in His chair.  

At the start of one such meeting,  he looked to me and said, "Steve, you always get the ottoman." 

As I was shrugging it off, Lili patted the couch next to her and with a flirtatious smile said, "You can sit over here."  

The room erupted in laughter as my face turned beet red. I stammered, "Ohm uh....I'm afraid of you."

Richard laughed out loud. "Afraid?  She hasn't even gotten started yet!"

The fear I mentioned was in reference to her tendency to explode in meetings.  Lili's a petit, gorgeous woman with a razor sharp wit and vocabulary that could make Bluto blush. Inevitably, in every meeting,  she would get into a nuclear argument with Steve Leiva.  Steve liked to preach about filmmaking, and Lili would have none of it.  She would tear into him with a bombastic barrage which, for the layman, would kill them instantly.  But Steve kept coming,  not conceding an inch with a haughty snort.  Lili would go apoplectic. The sound of Steve's voice would make her squirm on the couch, twisting her body away from him.  She would place her hand to her brow to block him from peripheral view, all while continuing her verbal mauling.  It was simultaneously hilarious and painful to watch.  Eventually, Richard, or "Bully" as she called him, would step in, and he and Fleischer would have the final word.   

Six months into pre-production on Betty Boop, regime change at MGM put the project in turnaround. We set up a Boop pitch room at The Zanuck Company,  which stayed up for a few years as they tried to set the film up at other studios.  But Fleischer's Boop deal was not favorable.  Studios wanted to control the merchandizing revenue, so the project died.   The artwork, reels, and recordings generated over that time were dispersed among the crew.
Betty Boop Movie Development painting by Fred Cline
It was through Richard Zanuck that I met musician and friend Bennie Wallace.  Bennie did several demo recordings for the film.  He would later score my 1997 short Redux Riding Hood and 1999's The Indescribable Nth.  I can't imagine these films without Bennie's score, but without Richard Zanuck, we would have never met.  I sent Lili a copy of The Nth, and she was so kind to call me with compliments.  She's tops in my book.  My heart goes out to her, dealing with the loss of her "Bully". 

Years after Boop, I called Mr. Z.  His secretary didn't remember me, took my name and number, and I figured he'd get back to me eventually, but he's a very busy man.  He called me that same afternoon.  I thanked him for that, and he said his father told him to always return calls on the same day, no matter what.  

He was truly a class act, and Hollywood is a more terrible business without him.    

Read more about The Boop Movie here.