David Brown, whose legendary career as a movie producer and executive spanned six decades, included four Academy Award nominations and produced smash box office hits like Oscar winners The Sting and Jaws, along with popular classics like Cocoon and Driving Miss Daisy, died today at his home in Manhattan after a long illness. He was 93.
Married for more than 50 years to Cosmopolitan magazine editor and author Helen Gurley Brown, Brown and his wife have been celebrated as anchors of both the Hollywood film and New York publishing communities. Before heading to Hollywood to join the film industry in 1951, Brown enjoyed a successful career as a journalist, including a stint as managing editor of Cosmopolitan, which his wife later made famous as its editor-in-chief. A prolific writer, Brown also authored a number of books, including his most recent, in 2006, Brown’s Guide to the Good Life Without Tears, Fears or Boredom.
“David Brown was a force in the entertainment, literary and journalism worlds,” said Frank A. Bennack, Jr., vice chairman and chief executive officer of Hearst Corporation. “We are very lucky at Hearst to have worked with him and his legendary wife, Helen, for many years. His expansive body of work will be enjoyed by people around the world for many centuries to come. He will be greatly missed.”
Along the way, Brown brought Elvis Presley to the big screen for the first time in Love Me Tender, launched director Steven Spielberg‘s career, and is credited with talking George C. Scott into playing Patton.
Born in New York City on July 28, 1916 to Edward Fisher Brown and Lillian Baren Brown, the film producer who would go on to, as one interviewer put it, “make half of Hollywood famous,” went west to Stanford University intending to be a physicist.
Quickly discovering that physics and higher math weren’t his strong suits, Brown majored in what he described as “the softest discipline I could think of, which was journalism.” He graduated from Stanford in 1936 and headed home to New York to earn his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University the following year.
After apprenticeships in the 1930s at a San Francisco newspaper and The Wall Street Journal, Brown became a copy editor and theater critic at Women’s Wear Daily. He then edited magazines, a job that at Cosmopolitan included penning attention-grabbing cover lines. He returned to that job later in life as an unpaid staff husband, writing the cover lines for then-Helen Gurley Brown‘s magazine.
Brown also wrote short stories and articles for national magazines like Collier’s, Harper’s, The New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post and for The New York Times. The future movie mogul held editorial positions at the Milk Research Council and the American Medical Association, and served as a first lieutenant with U.S. Army Military Intelligence during World War II.
With his eclectic journalism resume and a clear sense of narrative, Brown caught the eye of legendary Hollywood studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, who hired him in 1951 to head the story department at 20th Century Fox. To prepare for his second move west, Brown, who then preferred plays to movies, had to take what he called “a crash course in movie going.”
From 1952 to 1971, Brown rose in Fox’s executive ranks, surviving two firings, one of which briefly took him to Warner Bros., where he was executive vice president and a member of the board of directors. Twice divorced, he married Helen Gurley, then an advertising copywriter in Los Angeles, on September 25, 1959. While at Fox, Brown began his longtime friendship with Richard Zanuck, son of Darryl.
In 1972, Brown and Richard Zanuck formed their independent Zanuck-Brown production company. Until they dissolved the company in 1988, the Zanuck-Brown team consistently produced films that packed theaters. One of their first, The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1974.
That year, the team launched Steven Spielberg‘s directing career with his first feature film, The Sugarland Express, and went on to hire him for Jaws.
According to Brown, Spielberg at first didn’t want to do the 1975 flick about a giant shark terrorizing beachgoers in a summer resort town.
“He said, ‘There are movies and there are films, and I want to make films.’ And we said, ‘Well if this works, you can make films.'” The movie was such a smash hit that it led to the now-standard “summer blockbuster” release and helped launch Spielberg’s extraordinary industry success. Brown and Zanuck produced its sequel in 1978.
The pair went on to produce more films, including director Sidney Lumet‘s The Verdict (1982), Ron Howard‘s Cocoon (1985), and Robert Altman‘s The Player (1992), which won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Picture.
Brown received numerous career honors over the years, including the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1990 and the David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award from the Producers Guild of America in 1995. Other honors included the IFP Gotham Award in 1993, the ShowEast Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998, the Writers Guild of America (East) Evelyn F. Burkey Award in 1999 and ShoWest Producer of the Year in 2001.
In 1988, Brown founded and became president of his own production company, The Manhattan Project Ltd., continuing his success with such films as A Few Good Men (1992), Deep Impact (1998, with Richard Zanuck), and Angela’s Ashes (1999).
Other Brown successes were Kiss the Girls (1997), The Saint (1997), Along Came a Spider (2001), and Road to Perdition (2002). He received another Best Picture Oscar nomination as producer of Chocolat in 2001.
Once asked how he’d commanded Hollywood without making enemies or succumbing to its excesses, Brown said, “I keep my word, even when I make a mistake. I never lived beyond my means, and therefore, I never had to be a slave to Hollywood. I always had this feeling that I could go back to journalism. Unlike many Hollywood people, I had another career.”
A highly versatile and insightful producer, Brown was equally adept with stage and small screen productions and with movies. He produced the stage musical adaptation of Sweet Smell of Success, which opened in Chicago in 2001 before moving to New York in 2002. He also brought to the New York stage such notable plays as: Tru (1989-90), A Few Good Men (1989-91), The Cemetery Club (1990), and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2005). Brown was also executive producer of a 1996 CBS miniseries, A Season in Purgatory, and two movies for HBO.
Brown appeared as himself in numerous film and television documentaries on Hollywood subjects ranging from Marilyn Monroe and Darryl F. Zanuck to the stories behind watershed films like Gentleman’s Agreement, M*A*S*H and Jaws.
He remained a writer long after he left journalism, penning nonfiction books and editing others.
A Yale University student interviewer once asked Brown what he looked for in material to produce. Always the writer, he answered: “What you look for when you read a good book: what moves you. Something that makes you feel great, that absorbs you, that when you put it down you say, ‘I’ve got to call the agent, I hope I’m not too late.’ It’s subjective, it’s falling in love.”
His sole survivor is his wife.
A public funeral will be held on Thursday, February 4 at 3:30 p.m. at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel (1076 Madison Avenue at 81st Street) in New York City.