An Oscar-winning producer with a talent for finding and transforming unconventional material into box-office champions, Lili Fini Zanuck stands out in the motion picture industry as one of its most creative producer-directors.
Zanuck established her reputation for extraordinary taste and tenacity with her very first film, Cocoon (1985), and fortified her stature with an Academy Award for her third effort, 1989’s Best Picture of the Year, Driving Miss Daisy. Together, these two movies have garnered six Oscars out of eleven nominations between them and twice led to Zanuck being labeled Producer of the Year.
Zanuck is known for tapping into non-mainstream sources of material by soliciting work from never-before-produced writers and cultivating working relationships with little-known agents. This approach led to her discovery and the subsequent optioning of an unpublished science fiction manuscript “about aliens and old people,” which, after four years of development, resulted in the critical and box-office hit, Cocoon. The film won Academy Awards for Don Ameche as Best Supporting Actor and for Best Visual Effects, and earned the Zanucks and David Brown the title Producer of the Year from the National Association of Theater Owners. Two years later, the entire cast was reassembled for the film’s successful sequel, Cocoon: The Return (1988).
In 1988 Zanuck and her late husband, Richard D. Zanuck, formed The Zanuck Company. With the same perseverance that brought Cocoon to the screen, she struggled to find a home for another “unlikely” project – their new company’s first endeavor, Driving Miss Daisy, starring Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman and Dan Aykroyd, written by Alfred Uhry and directed by Bruce Beresford. Although based on Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, the commercial value of Driving Miss Daisy as a feature film was considered by many to be questionable. All skepticism was proven wrong, however, when the humorous tale of an elderly Jewish matron and her black chauffeur earned nine Academy Award nominations and won Oscars for Best Picture of the Year, Best Actress, Best Screenplay and Best Achievement in Makeup.
The film was also named Best Picture of the Year (Best Musical or Comedy) by the Hollywood Foreign Press and the National Board of Review, and the Zanucks were named Producer of the Year by the Producers Guild of America. Honored internationally as well, the film won the Silver Bear for Best Acting Team at the Berlin International Film Festival and was nominated for Best Picture by the British Film Academy. As successful as it was celebrated, Driving Miss Daisy has grossed more than $100 million and ranks as one of the most profitable films in Warner Bros. history.
Firmly established as an award-winning producer, Zanuck made her directorial debut with the compelling drama Rush in 1992. Based on the best-selling book by Kim Wozencraft, Rush starred Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh as two undercover narcotics officers facing their own struggle with drugs and featured rock legend Gregg Allman in a classic film performance. Rush went on to win enormous critical praise for Zanuck’s unyielding direction and the film’s outstanding performances. The score, composed by Eric Clapton, became one of the most acclaimed of the year with the Rush soundtrack being certified Gold and the single “Tears in Heaven” Platinum. It was voted both Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards in 1993. In addition, Zanuck directed the video for “Tears in Heaven,” which won MTV’s Best Male Video in 1992.
She has also been honored by the Academy of Country Music for directing Faith Hill’s “Breathe,” named Music Video of the Year in 1999 and received nominations from the Billboard Music Awards for “Breathe” and “Let’s Make Love,” the Faith Hill/Tim McGraw video which she also directed.
Zanuck directed an acclaimed episode of HBO’s multi-Emmy-winning mini-series From the Earth to the Moon, as well as three episodes of NBC’s six hour event series, Revelations starring Bill Pullman in 2005.
Richard and Lili Zanuck produced the 72nd Annual Academy Awards presentation for the year 2000, which garnered nine Emmy nominations and also marked the first time a woman produced this show.
Lili Zanuck was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, raised throughout Europe, attended college in Northern Virginia and began her professional career as a research assistant at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Her move to Los Angeles in 1977 proved to be both a professional and personal turning point in her life when, soon after her arrival, she met and married producer Richard D. Zanuck who died in 2012.