updated 01/04/2014 AT 2:00 PM ET
•originally published 01/04/2014 AT 3:00 PM ET
Zaentz died Friday at his San Francisco apartment after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Paul Zaentz, the producer’s nephew and longtime business partner, told the Associated Press.
Zaentz was never a prolific movie producer, but he took on classy productions, specializing in complex literary adaptations that Hollywood studios generally find too intricate to put on film.
Since moving into film at age 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 live-action trilogy.
He also brought out the 1986 Harrison Ford drama The Mosquito Coast; 1998’s acclaimed The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which costarred The 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.
From Music to Movies
Born Feb. 28, 1921, in Passaic, N.J., 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 World War II.
After the war, Zaentz attended business college and moved to San Francisco, where he worked for a small record distributor and later joined jazz producer Norman Granz, working on recordings and concerts.
Zaentz entered the movie business after growing bored with his successful recording-industry career, which included the Fantasy Records label he bought in 1967.
An Echo of Old Hollywood
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 his own money up to help finance them. He appreciated unique personal vision in directors, taking chances on relatively 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.
Reteaming with Forman, Zaentz made Amadeus, adapted from Peter Shaffer’s play that whimsically examined the relationship between Mozart and rival composer Salieri. The film won eight Oscars.
Zaentz topped that with The English Patient, which won nine.
The same night The English Patient triumphed at the Oscars, Zaentz received the Irving G. Thalberg Award, a lifetime-achievement honor 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.”