Three-time Academy Award-winning director Saul Zaentz has died this past Friday in the San Fransisco Bay area. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s. He was 92.
As a producer, Zaentz’s tastes ran towards the literary. His first film was the 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey’s iconoclastic novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and it would be his first Oscar win for Best Picture. Hi other two Academy Award wins were also based on pre-existing literary projects – 1984’s Amadeus was adapted from Peter Shaffers stage play and 1995’s The English Patient was based on Michael Ondaatje’s novel.
Zaentz optioned the film rights to both Cuckoo’s Nest and Peter Matthiessen’s novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord in 1968. He finally realized At Play In The Fields Of The Lord on the big screen in 1991. In 1976, he optioned the film rights to both J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, and produced animator Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation of the first portion of Tolkien’s three-part Rings epic. In 1997, he optioned the rights to Miramax, where Peter Jackson was initially trying to set up his adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings. When Miramax passed due to not being able to bankroll the project, the rights followed Jackson to New Line Cinema, who would be able to finance the trilogy. The three films went on to gross over $2.9 billion, making it one of the most successful franchises of all time.
Born in Passaic, New Jersey, Zaentz started his career as a jazz record producer following a stint serving in the army during World War Two. He eventually came to work for Fantasy Records where he worked with jazz legend Dave Brubeck as well as comedians Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. Zaentz later bought the company and often used it as leverage to fund his early films.