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Obituary: Saul Zaentz

The English Patient

Obituary by Jack Foley

LEGENDARY film producer Saul Zaentz has died at the age of 92 from complications caused by Alzheimer’s.

His many achievements include sharing three Academy Awards for best picture for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, Amadeus in 1984 and The English Patient in 1996.

Zaentz also received the Irving G. Thalberg Award in 1997 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his “consistently high quality of motion picture production”.

Born in Passaic, New Jersey, on February 28, 1921, Zaentz ran away from home at the age of 15 and ended up in St Louis, where he found work as a peanut vendor at Cardinals baseball games.

He went on to serve in the US Army during World War II in both Europe and the Pacific before returning home to try his hand at chicken farming. When that didn’t work out for him, he returned to St Louis to study business and them moved to San Francisco, where he landed a job managing the tours of jazz great Norman Granz.

This, in turn, enabled him to go on the road with the likes of Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck and drove his passion for music. In 1955, he joined Fantasy Records and later bought it outright in 1967, striving to turn it into the world’s biggest jazz label.

Tireless and constantly in search of new challenges, Zaentz then turned his attention to the film industry and, in 1975, teamed up with then fledgling producer Michael Douglas to help make One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Jack Nicholson starred in the adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel and the film became an instant classing, earning Zaentz his first Academy Award, which he shared with Douglas. The film itself also took the top five Oscars and remains one of the few to do so.

Thereafter, he produced an animated version of The Lord of the Rings in 1978 and helped bring another classic ’60s novel to the screen in 1991 in the form of At Play in the Fields of the Lord.

Prior to that, he produced his second best picture movie, Amadeus, which was based on the life and music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the jealousy his talent provoked. That film won eight Oscars in total.

Two years later, he executive produced The Mosquito Coast, working with director Peter Weir and star Harrison Ford – the film winning more critical acclaim.

His third Oscar success came in 1996 with The English Patient, based on an unpublished novel that Zaentz had acquired. The film, starring Ralph Fiennes, won nine Oscars, including a director accolade for the late Anthony Minghella and best actress for Juliette Binoche.

And more recently, Zaentz produced Goya’s Ghosts, which was directed by Milos Forman.

Among his many other accolades, Zaentz also accepted BAFTA’s Academy Fellowship in 2003 for his career achievements.

Announcing the news of Zaentz’s passing, his nephew Paul Zaentz – also a producer – said: “He was an extraordinary man. He had a lot of guts, a lot of integrity.”

Zaentz is survived by four children – Dorian, Joshua, Athena, Jonnie – and seven grandchildren.