Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Richard Zanuck: Bursting Out of the Hollywood Cocoon

It sounds like typical Hollywood nepotism when, at age 28, you are named head of production at the studio your father co-founded. It sounds not quite so typical when your father responds to hard times by having you fired. Such was the life of Richard Zanuck, son of Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox. Zanuck died of a heart attack Friday at age 77, with a lot of films left in him.

At Fox, the younger Zanuck presided over fiscal triumphs like The Sound of Music. He also, as chronicled in John Gregory Dunne’s invaluable The Studio, greenlit the bloated Rex Harrison flop, Doctor Dolittle. But generally his ability to sniff out hit material was remarkable. Many obits point out how he gave young Steven Spielberg his first big break with The Sugarland Express, then went on to produce Spielberg’s blockbuster second feature, Jaws.

I want to focus on another intuitive leap made by Zanuck as an independent producer. Circa 1985 he and his partners struck a deal with Fox to make Cocoon. The film -- about some Florida senior citizens who sail off in a flying saucer in order to live forever –- originally had Robert Zemeckis at the helm. When Zemeckis belatedly bowed out, Zanuck and company offered Cocoon to Ron Howard, on the strength of his work on Night Shift (1982) and Splash (1984). Howard, then still a fledgling director, inherited a script full of SFX as well as a cast dominated by such acting legends as Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, and Maureen Stapleton.

Howard worried that Cocoon would come off as a pale copy of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. His impulse was to cut back on the film’s otherworldly elements and focus on the hopes and needs of its elderly characters. Ironically, he discovered that each of the senior actors in his company had a different approach. Of the four cronies whose actions dominate much of the film, Hume Cronyn devoted much mental energy to analyzing his role, while Jack Gilford called on the skills of a trained vaudevillian. The dapper Don Ameche, whose nimble breakdancing scene helped him land a supporting actor Oscar, turned out to be an old-school Hollywood thespian who begged Howard to give him precise direction. As for curmudgeonly Wilford Brimley, he was happiest when going his own way. A prime example is the fishing scene, in which his character breaks the news to his beloved grandson that he’s leaving for outer space. With Howard’s blessings, Brimley discarded the scripted lines and improvised a simple but deeply moving farewell. Says Howard, “It is one of the scenes I've always been proudest of, and I had virtually nothing to do with it.”

In another respect too, Howard learned by listening to his actors. There’s an important plot strand in which senior citizens sneak into a neighbor’s swimming pool, and become rejuvenated by its magical life-force. One scene requires Brimley (age fifty-one), Cronyn (age seventy-four), and Ameche (age seventy-seven) to cavort in the pool like youngsters, doing exuberant flips and dives. Howard hired doubles to execute these stunts, then discovered the three actors were miffed: “They wanted to do it themselves. And they did. They really taught me that you can’t generalize about what people can, or cannot, do because of age.”

Zanuck’s instincts about Ron Howard were right on target. Cocoon went on to become a major hit. But in one respect Howard proved smarter than Zanuck. He decided he wanted no part of Zanuck’s attempt at a 1988 sequel, Cocoon: The Return.


  1. I have enjoyed a great many movies from both Zanucks - RIP Richard Zanuck - but what a filmic legacy he left beind, including The Apes films, and of course Jaws. I am also very fond of Cocoon - and really enjoyed your look behind the scenes. I also tend to forget that Wilford Brimley was playing old guys while he was in his 50's - jeepers, did that guy ever look young? I mean, he was only 6 years older than I am now in Cocoon - but he fit right in with the other gentlemen. (I'd like to think that in six years I still would stick out like a sore thumb if digitally inserted into Cocoon over Mr. Brimley.)

    The movie is a feel-good picture in the very best sense of the phrase - and Mr. Howard made the right decision staying away from the pedestrian sequel which does nothing to add to or enhance the story from the original.

  2. Yes, I think he was born with a walrus mustache and a scowl.