Although his reputation as a hands-on producer adept in bringing quality films to the screen is considerable, Zaentz began his showbusiness career as a music industry executive, notably with Fantasy Records. By the late 1960s he was part of a consortium that bought the company and turned it into the biggest jazz label in the world.
His first foray into the film business came after he saw a stage production of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which he produced as a movie – in partnership with Michael Douglas – in 1975.
Subsequent films include Three Warriors (1977) and an animated version of The Lord of the Rings (1978), before he teamed up once more with Cuckoo’s Nest director Milos Forman to produce the garlanded, BAFTA nominated Amadeus (1984).
Zaentz’s skill as a producer was in developing individual projects, often with his own money, and maintaining the fidelity of the source material it was from the page or the stage. He also rang the thematic changes regularly, tackling a wide range of dramas including The Mosquito Coast (1986), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and At Play In The Fields of the Lord (1991).
His painstaking approach to each production accounted for the sometimes lengthy gap between projects, but the wait for his next proved worth it as The English Patient (1996) was a critical and commercial success around the world, winning six BAFTAs – including Best – and nominated for a further seven.
Zaentz was made a BAFTA Fellow in 2003, in recognition of his singular contribution to cinema. He and his partners sold Fantasy Records a year later and he also began winding down his production facility in Berkeley, The Saul Zaentz Film Center. In 2006 he reunited with Milos Forman for his final film, the Spanish drama Goya’s Ghosts.