SAN FRANCISCO — 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 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 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 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.” Forman also directed “Amadeus.”

With “Lord of the Rings,” whose film rights he acquired in the mid-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.”

Though Zaentz’s involvement was limited and he did not share in the producing credits, he gave full blessing to Jackson’s mammoth, three-film “Lord of the Rings” production. He later sued over royalties, however; the dispute was settled out of court in 2005.

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.

Zaentz had worked in the music industry for nearly two decades when he decided to try his hand at film. He tended to go after the rights to literary works he loved, and one of the first was Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Kirk Douglas owned the film rights. Zaentz said in a 1985 interview in the journal American Film that Douglas would only sell the rights if he could star.

Uninterested in those terms, Zaentz went off and produced “Payday,” which starred Rip Torn and cost $76,000.

By then, Michael Douglas had obtained the “Cuckoo’s Nest” rights from his father, and he and Zaentz teamed up to make the film with Jack Nicholson.

The film won five Oscars.

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