A Blockbuster Memory Of Richard D. Zanuck

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 16, 2012 3:20PM

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Richard and Lily Zanuck at the 1990 Academy Awards; photo by Alan Light
Richard D. Zanuck, who produced scores of movies in almost every conceivable genre, including the Best Picture Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy, passed away on Friday at the age of 77. His most recent credit was Tim Burton's Dark Shadows, released earlier this year; all in all he produced six movies by Burton. And his other credits include some of the biggest moneymakers in the last quarter of the 20th century, including The Sting, Deep Impact, Cocoon, and Jaws. Indeed, in a statement Steven Spielberg said that Zanuck “taught me everything I know about producing.”

Jaws was certainly a blockbuster, but I have my own Blockbuster memory of Zanuck. Blockbuster Video, that is. While I was a film student at Columbia College in the mid-1990's I had a part-time job at the Blockbuster Video in Old Town, on North Avenue between LaSalle and Wells. It's not there anymore (the space is currently vacant; it was most recently a hair salon), but in its day it was, despite its corporate pedigree, the epitome of a neighborhood video store. Local kids rented video games from Blockbuster, while their parents trawled the New Release wall for the latest from Hollywood. All in all it was a pretty decent place to have a part-time job; the work was easy, and the free rentals fed my movie habit quite nicely.

One evening I was working the closing shift. We stayed open till midnight. It was probably around 10 p.m. and the store wasn't very busy at all. I was behind the checkout counter when this tall, gaunt gentleman with semi-crazy white hair approached the register with three tapes. I asked for his Blockbuster card and he explained that he wasn't a member, so I asked him to step around to the side counter in order to fill out a membership application. This he did without any complaint. I propped up the form next to the computer and began to create his account. While doing a preliminary scan of the application, to make sure everything was in order, the zip code of his home address happened to catch my eye. 90210. Then I read his name.

"Excuse me," I said. "But are you the Richard D. Zanuck?"

He assured me that, in fact, he was.

A moment or two of silence (awed on my part, polite on his) followed. I finished inputting his data, created a membership card for him. We stepped back around to the cash register side of the counter where, for the first time, I noticed which three movies he was renting.

I said, "Oh. You're here in town filming Chain Reaction, aren't you?"

Again, nodding, he confirmed my brilliant deduction.

Chain Reaction, directed by Andrew Davis, was filmed in and around Chicago. It starred Morgan Freeman and Keanu Reeves. I can't remember with 100 percent certainty which three Keanu Reeves movies he was renting that night, but in my mind's eye I picture Johnny Mnemonic, Speed, and Point Break.

Tongue-tied rube that I was, I couldn't think of a single interesting question to ask him. Like, "What do you think of Chicago?" or "Where are you staying?" or even "Why didn't you get your assistant to go to Blockbuster?" Instead I simply finished ringing him up, accepted his payment (tendered, I seem to recall, with a platinum AmEx), and wished him good luck with the movie. I never saw him again, but I'd like to think he returned the movies on time.