English Patient producer Saul Zaentz dies at 92

Risk-taker driven to turn literary works he loved into film, dies after suffering Alzheimer's disease

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 January, 2014, 2:18am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 January, 2014, 2:18am


Saul Zaentz, a music producer whose second career as a filmmaker brought him best-picture Academy Awards for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus and The English Patient, has died. He was 92.

Zaentz died on Friday at his San Francisco apartment after suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Paul Zaentz, the producer's nephew and longtime business partner said.

Zaentz was never a prolific movie producer, but he took on classy productions, specialising in complex literary adaptations that Hollywood studios generally find too intricate to put on film.

Since moving into film at the age of 50 with 1972's low-budget country-music drama Payday, Zaentz made just 10 movies, giving him a remarkable three-for-10 batting average on best-picture wins at the Oscars.

Among Zaentz's other films were the 1978 animated version of The Lord of the Rings, which later paved the way for the blockbuster action trilogy.

He also brought out the 1986 Harrison Ford drama The Mosquito Coast; 1998's acclaimed The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which co-starred English Patient Oscar winner Juliette Binoche; and 1991's At Play in the Fields of the Lord, a critical and commercial flop despite a cast that included Kathy Bates, Tom Berenger and John Lithgow.

Zaentz was a throwback to old Hollywood, a producer who cared tremendously about his films and would go to extremes to get them right, often putting up his own money and taking chances on untested filmmakers.

Anthony Minghella had made just two small films when Zaentz picked him to direct The English Patient, whose awards included the best-director Oscar. Czech director Milos Forman had worked on films mostly in his home country when producers Zaentz and Michael Douglas chose him to make One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Forman also directed Amadeus. With The Lord of the Rings, whose film rights he acquired in the 1970s, Zaentz rejected all suitors interested in doing a live-action version until he saw New Zealand director Peter Jackson's visually striking Heavenly Creatures.

Zaentz had worked in music for nearly two decades when he decided to try his hand at film. The night that The English Patient triumphed at the Oscars, he received the Irving G. Thalberg Award, a lifetime-achievement honour for producers.

"My cup is full," Zaentz said in accepting the award. After The English Patient won best picture, Zaentz added: "I said my cup was full before. Now it runneth over."

Born on February 28, 1921, in Passaic, New Jersey, Zaentz earned a degree in poultry husbandry from Rutgers University. He served in Africa and Sicily and aboard troop ships in the North Atlantic and Pacific during the second world war.