A few thoughts on the passing of producer David Brown (1916-2010), best known for his partnership with Richard F. Zanuck (son of legendary Twentieth-Century Fox head honcho Darryl F.), which resulted in some of the biggest hits of the 1970s and ’80s. Their credits included such disparate films as the Oscar-sweeping The Sting (1973); Steven Spielberg’s first feature, The Sugarland Express (1974), as well as his seminal blockbuster Jaws (1975) and Jeannot Szwarc’s 1978 sequel; the Gregory Peck biopic MacArthur (1977); Sidney Lumet’s outstanding The Verdict (1982); Ron Howard’s Cocoon (1985) and Daniel Petrie’s 1988 sequel; and Bruce Beresford’s delightful Driving Miss Daisy (1989).
After the amicable dissolution of Zanuck/Brown Productions, he kept his hand in with the likes of Robert Altman’s star-studded The Player (1992); Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men (1992); Michael Moore’s insightful satire Canadian Bacon (1995); the James Patterson-based thriller Kiss the Girls (1997) and its sequel, Along Came a Spider (2001); and several that are still on my “to-see” list, including Deep Impact (1998), Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes (1999), and Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat (2000). On the less successful side of the ledger, Brown was also behind the cheesy SF film Sssssss (1973), in which future Battlestar Galactica star Dirk Benedict gets turned into a snake; the so-so Don Siegel/Michael Caine spy story The Black Windmill (1974); Clint Eastwood’s disappointing The Eiger Sanction (1975); the disastrous Peter Benchley adaptation The Island (1980); the John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd oddity Neighbors (1981); and the misconceived Val Kilmer vehicle The Saint (1997).
Regarding Brown’s life and career outside of producing (e.g., his long marriage to Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown), I can’t add anything to what’s in the other, more professional obituaries currently blanketing the media. On a subjective note, however, several of his films loom large in my personal pantheon. For example, I was ten when The Sting came out, and it remains one of my earliest and fondest film-going memories. I saw it with my father and brother Steve (can’t recall if Mom was with us; she may have been off playing the cello at one of her orchestral gigs) and remember being absolutely blown away by the brilliance of its construction, the star power of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the sumptuous period settings, and the infectious Scott Joplin ragtime score. Innumerable subsequent viewings have done nothing to change that initial assessment.
I vividly remember the summer Jaws came out, because it was the one time I was shipped off to YMCA sleep-away camp…and I was apparently THE ONLY KID in the whole camp who hadn’t seen it already. By the time I left Camp Hi-Rock in Mount Washington, Massachusetts, I knew every big money shot from the film (e.g., the one-eyed head falling out of the boat, the guy’s leg drifting down through the water). I can’t remember why I hadn’t seen it yet—maybe Dad wasn’t interested; maybe I thought I’d be too scared or grossed out—but needless to say, even that didn’t detract from my eventual enjoyment of this outstanding film. And The Verdict, which I saw on a date with the future Madame B, was (as I later learned) a rare example of a film adaptation that far outshines its source, in this case the novel by Barry Reed, with its superb script by David Mamet, powerhouse performance by Newman and solid supporting cast.
If you’re wondering about the title of this piece, by the way, it’s actually a twofer. First, Brown entitled his 1990 memoir Let Me Entertain You. Second, “The Entertainer” is the best-known of the wonderful Joplin rags that were brought back into vogue by The Sting, and soon became a staple in the ancestral Bradley manse. (In fact, to this day, when people hear that tune, they will often say, “Hey, that’s ‘The Sting,’” a misconception I always take pains to correct.) But it’s also a fitting epitaph for a filmmaker who had as high a batting average as David Brown’s.