By Bob Tourtellotte and Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Veteran Hollywood executive Richard D. Zanuck, the prolific producer behind the blockbuster shark thriller "Jaws," the best-picture Oscar-winner "Driving Miss Daisy" and a string of Tim Burton fantasies, died on Friday of a heart attack at age 77.
Zanuck, son of famed 20th Century Fox chieftain Darryl F. Zanuck, who was named by his father at age 28 as Fox's head of production, making him Hollywood's then youngest-ever studio boss, died at his home in Beverly Hills, a spokesman said.
No further details were immediately available about the circumstances of his death.
Zanuck, who spent the bulk of his career as an independent producer, earned numerous awards during more than 50 years in filmmaking.
Among his accolades were the Academy Award he shared with his wife and collaborator, Lili Fini Zanuck, for their work on "Driving Miss Daisy," and the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his work with longtime associate David Brown.
Steven Spielberg, with whom Zanuck collaborated on "Jaws," called the producer "a cornerstone of our industry, both in name and in deed."
"In 1974, Dick Zanuck and I sat in a boat off Martha's Vineyard and watched the mechanical shark sink to the bottom of the sea," Spielberg recalled in a statement. "Dick turned to me and smiled. 'Gee, I sure hope that's not a sign.'"
That moment of wry humor proved to be far from prophetic, as "Jaws," the tale of a great white shark that terrorizes a small New England beach town, became one of the biggest hits of its era and helped launch Spielberg's career as a director.
Born in Los Angeles, Zanuck, whose mother was actress Virginia Fox, joined his father as a story and production assistant on two 20th Century Fox films, "Island in the Sun" and "The Sun Also Rises."
He debuted as a full-fledged producer at age 24 on 1959 feature film "Compulsion," which starred Orson Welles. Four years later, he was placed in charge of production at his father's studio.
During his eight-year tenure there, the studio cranked out a series of critical and commercial successes, "The Sound of Music," "Patton" and "The French Connection," all of which won best film Oscars. Other Fox hits from that period include the original "Planet of the Apes" series, the Paul Newman and Robert Redford western "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and the Korean War satire "M*A*S*H."
HOLLYWOOD HITS AND MISSES
But a handful of big-screen musical flops "greenlighted" for production by Zanuck, among them "Doctor Dolittle," "Hello Dolly" and "Star," cost the studio dearly and ultimately led to his ouster in 1970 by his father.
From there, Zanuck and Brown moved briefly to Warner Bros., where they oversaw the making of the religious thriller "The Exorcist" and Mel Brooks' parody western, "Blazing Saddles" before starting their own production company.
It was the Zanuck/Brown label that made Spielberg's 1974 film directorial debut, "The Sugarland Express," and his 1975 blockbuster "Jaws," which earned Oscars for film editing, score and sound.
Other Zanuck/Brown successes included "The Sting," a Depression-era tale of grifters that reunited Newman and Redford and won seven Academy Awards, including best picture; courtroom drama "The Verdict," which earned five Oscar nominations, and "Cocoon," which won Oscars for best supporting Oscar (Don Ameche) and visual effects.
Zanuck earned his greatest personal filmmaking accolade for the first movie produced under his own Zanuck Company label, the 1989 film "Driving Miss Daisy," about the relationship of a stubborn old Jewish woman (Jessica Tandy) and her black chauffeur (Morgan Freeman) in the American South.
The film earned four Oscars, including best actress for Tandy and best picture for Zanuck and his wife.
The latter stretch of Zanuck's career was marked by a close collaboration with director Tim Burton, starting with a 2001 remake of "Planet of the Apes," released by 20th Century Fox.
Others included the 2005 hit "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," the critically acclaimed 2007 musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and the 2010 success "Alice in Wonderland," all starring Johnny Depp.
The last film of Zanuck's career ended up being his sixth collaboration with Burton, the critical and commercial bomb "Dark Shadows," also starring Depp and based on the 1960s television series about lovelorn vampire.
In addition to his wife, Zanuck is survived by his sons Harrison and Dean, and nine grandchildren.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)