Saul Zaentz: What Does a Producer Do, Anyway?

In movies, he won three Oscars for Best Picture. In the record business, he kept suing John Fogerty.

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Carlos Osorio / Toronto Star / Getty Images

Producers used to be the alpha dogs of movies — Hollywood rajahs, figures of legendary power and belligerence. And, oddly, many of these first-among-equals potentates had surnames beginning with the last letter of the alphabet. Adolph Zukor founded Paramount Pictures and lived to 103. Darryl F. Zanuck supervised the liveliest Warner Bros. films of the pre-Code period, then spent 23 years as the head of 20th Century-Fox. Some Z-men flourished in the netherworld of low-budget pulp: Albert Zugsmith and, if you will, Samuel Z. Arkoff.

Another man, who didn’t make a movie until he was 50, had the pearliest record of all. Of the 10 films he produced, three — One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus and The English Patient — won the Academy Award for Best Picture. That was Saul Zaentz, the music and movie executive who died Jan. 3 in San Francisco at 92. In short, the man had taste; he recognized quality when others didn’t — as in 1976, when he acquired the film rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Combine connoisseurship with clout, and Zaentz, among Hollywood’s legendary producers, deserves to be known as the indie-film King of the Zs.

(READ: Oscar Night 1976, when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest triumphed)

Zaentz was called many things: a “visionary” by the Producers Guild of America and “Mr. Greed” by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, whom Zaentz, as the owner of Fantasy, Fogerty’s former label, had ensnared in rancorous legal battles. Perhaps John Sloss, producer of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (…Sunset, …Sunrise, …Midnight), got closest to the truth when he Tweeted: “Saul Zaentz, R.I.P. Titan, bad ass.

To gauge Zaentz’s influence we have to ask: What does a movie producer do, anyway? This is the Hollywood equivalent of Freud’s “What does a woman want?” and harder to answer. A producer may do any or all of these: find the literary property (a novel, play or original script), shape the idea into a viable film, raise the money, hire the director, choose the cast, oversee production and postproduction, mastermind the marketing, negotiate the worldwide rights — be a movie’s begetter and first, demanding viewer. Any or all, or next to none: for in the decades since Zanuck and Zukor, other picturemakers ceded their power to the director, a producer is often the director’s enabler, handmaiden, handyman, occasional naysayer and more frequent cheerleader. No longer the boss.

One movie tradition has held: on Oscar night, the producer is the one who gets the Best Picture prize — a vestige of Hollywood’s golden age, when the category was called Outstanding Production, and the men behind the front-office desks, not on the set, decided what audiences would see. Zaentz was on stage, clasping a statuette, for all three of his movies’ wins. And in 1997, a few minutes before his English Patient triumph, he received the Irving J. Thalberg life-achievement award for his “consistently high quality of motion picture production.”

(READ: Why The English Patient deserved its Oscars)

In his Thalberg acceptance speech, Zaentz declared: “Passion is the immeasurable, indescribable factor that separates movie from movie. Passion moves freely across borders, speaks every language and flourishes in every culture. The movement of passion is the most gratifying satisfaction in any moviemaker’s life.” He had a passionate belief in the movie viability of Ken Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest novel and Anthony Shaffer’s play Amadeus, and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, whose rights Zaentz bought before the book was published — and his passion paid off, at the box office and with the Motion Picture Academy.

With his white beard and beneficent smile, Zaentz could have been a yiddishe papa playing Santa Claus. That visage was deceptive. “Looking like Father Christmas may only enable Saul Zaentz to be a more lucid, and even ruthless, dealer,” David Thomson wrote in A Biographical Dictionary of Film. “Equally, we may see in him what is now a rarity — the real idealism of the showman who yearns to bring good things to the masses going hand in hand with the rigorous practicality that determines to get the best in every deal. … I would urge anyone to keep awake when making contacts with him. Above all, I would suggest, the exactness and the ambition come out of the same genes. Saul Zaentz is the nearest we have to teach ourselves what the great age of Goldwyn, Mayer, Zanuck and Selznick was like.”

(READ: Richard Schickel on David Thomson’s biography of David O. Selznick)

Well, Zaentz did possess an outsize personality whose chutzpah and charm — or, depending on your pronunciation, hutzpah and harm — matched those of the old moguls. But Zanuck and Louis B. Mayer ran studios that produced five times as many films a year as Zaentz did in his lifetime. They and Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn were the plutocrats of a huge American industry. Zaentz owned a boutique business that, once a decade, manufactured a prestige item that Oscar took to its gold-plated heart.

And in one area, he outdid them. He entered the movie business having achieved success in another field: as the head of a trailblazing, million-selling record company.

Like so many of the men (except for Zanuck) who created Hollywood, Zaentz came from immigrant Jewish stock. Born in 1921 in Passaic, N.J., he served in World War II, tried chicken farming and was briefly a professional gambler — a job designation that applied for the rest of his life. As an assistant to Norman Granz, who launched the Jazz at the Philharmonic series and founded Verve Records, Zaentz traveled with and helped manage the careers of Duke Ellington, Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck. While recording for Max and Sol Weiss’s Fantasy label, Brubeck had recruited Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker to the Berkeley-based company on the assumption that he would share in the profits. When he found out otherwise, he left for Columbia. By then, Zaentz had joined Fantasy; he bought out the Weiss brothers in 1967.

At Fantasy, Zaentz expanded the label’s repertoire. Detecting the improv verbal poetry behind the notorious “sick humor,” he signed Lenny Bruce, who recorded four albums that would redefine standup comedy. In 1962 Fantasy enjoyed a breakthrough singles hit with the Grammy-winning instrumental “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” by pianist Vince Guaraldi, who would go on to compose scores for the Peanuts TV specials. And in 1964, Max Weiss signed a local band, the Blue Velvets, and changed their name to the Golliwogs. When Zaentz bought out the Weisses, he told the band they could record a full album — on the condition that they choose a less ridiculous name. This time, it was Creedence Clearwater Revival.

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Lenny Bruce)

Led by singer-songwriter Fogerty, CCR sold 26 million albums and had a slew of top-10 swamp-rock singles: “Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Down on the Corner,” “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain.” While riding the top of the charts, Creedence fought Zaentz for a less onerous contract and broke up in 1972 over that useful euphemism, creative differences. (If CCR had a battle of the bands, it was always Fogerty vs. the other guys.)

In 1985 Fogerty had a solo hit album, Centerfield, which included two numbers attacking his old boss. One, “Zanz Kant Danz,” which portrayed Zaentz as a pig who will “steal your money. / Watch him or he’ll rob you blind.” The second anti-Saul psalm was “Mr. Greed,” an enraged open letter to the man he thought had swindled him: “Mr. Greed, why you got to take more than you can ever use? / Bring ’em to their knees —  isn’t it enough just to win while they lose? / You bring no honor to the game, you feast upon the blood and pain. / But the bones you hoard can only bring you shame. / There’s corruption in your path. Be that your epitaph, Mr. Greed.

Zaentz responded with two lawsuits. In the first, he argued that the Centerfield single “The Old Man Down the Road” had ripped off the CCR song “Run Through the Jungle”; at the trial, Fogerty took his guitar to the witness stand, played both numbers and won the case. In another, Zaentz sued Fogerty over the pig song, obliging Fogerty to change “Zanz” to “Vanz.” When his longtime enemy died last week, Fogerty, in lieu of an R.I.P., posted an animated version of the song on his Twitter account. Some people believe in God; Fogerty, no less devoutly, believes in grudges.

(READ: Jay Cocks on Creedence, Fogerty and  Zaentz)

And Zaentz, besides lawsuits, believed in movies nobody else wanted to produce. Cuckoo’s Nest, for example. Kirk Douglas, who had starred as Randle P. McMurphy in the 1963 Broadway adaptation of the Kesey novel, hoped to make a film of it, with himself in the lead, but couldn’t find financing. At last he handed the property to his son Michael, who connected with Zaentz. They hired Czech emigré Milos Forman to direct and Jack Nicholson to star, and on Oscar night the movie swept the top five categories: Picture (for the 55-year-old Zaentz and the 30-year-old Douglas), Director, Actor, Actress (Louise Fletcher) and Adapted Screenplay (Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben). Kesey, angry that the movie told his story from McMurphy’s point of view and not the Indian chief’s, sued Zaentz. The producer had a knack for infuriating the people whose work he’d bought.

Yet Forman, who directed Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, testified gratefully to Zaentz’s gifts of organization and inspiration — as did adaptor-director Anthony Minghella on The English Patient, which is by far the finest of the three. Among Zaentz’s non-Oscar winners, most were sprawling productions based on popular, knotty, critically praised novels: Paul Theroux’s Mosquito Coast, Peter Matthiesen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. They earned respectful notices, but Zaentz’s passion for them was not matched by the members of the Motion Picture Academy.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Unbearable Lightness of Being

As for the Tolkien deal, it didn’t pay off immediately. Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated film of the first half of the LOTR trilogy was an artistic and financial disappointment, and Bakshi didn’t get to make the second half. Twenty years later, though, Zaentz sold the rights to the Weinstein brothers. They passed the property along to New Line. And the Peter Jackson films earned nearly $3 billion — plus a Best Picture Oscar for the trilogy’s climax, The Return of the King.

Zaentz, the King of the Zs, returned with one more epic: the 2006 Goya’s Ghosts, directed by Forman and starring Javier Bardem and Natalie Portman. TIME’s Richard Schickel praised the film for its “grand scale and grand ambitions,” and for speaking, in period metaphor, “about such current issues as torture, terror and the fact that some people can profit hugely by making up ideological justifications for the anarchy they loose upon the world.”

(READ: Richard Schickel’s review of Goya’s Ghosts)

Goya’s Ghosts was the final example of Saul Zaentz’s way of producing: banking on an idea that had seized his passion, and believing that an intelligent movie could find a wide audience. In cashing in on that lofty dream, Mr. Greed was Mr. Succeed.