August 26, 1985 12:00 PM

All right, so maybe they’re not Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, but Dick and Lili Zanuck have every reason to be frolicking in the Santa Monica surf. They are the proud owners of two of Hollywood’s most treasured commodities: a hot movie and a happy marriage.

As the son of movie tycoon Darryl F. Zanuck, and as producer of a string of smashes that includes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting and Jaws, Richard Zanuck, 50, might be a tad blasé about another box office blockbuster. Not so Lili, 31, who oversaw the Cocoon project from its inception and shared producing credit for the first time with her husband and his longtime partner, David Brown (hubby of Cosmo’s Helen Gurley).

“It was going to be my success or my failure,” says Lili, who has been apprenticing for this moment since she married Zanuck seven years ago. When she moved into the grand Santa Monica beach house (built by Darryl) with her new husband and his two sons, Lili Fini had no wish to be just a Hollywood wife. “I knew she wasn’t going to sit around the house with the kids all day,” says Zanuck. “And I figured if she’s going to work for somebody, why shouldn’t she work for us? She could do a lot of the dirty work David and I didn’t want to do anymore.”

Self-doubt didn’t plague Zanuck’s third wife as she threw herself into the business. “I’m very talented, extremely articulate and highly intelligent—perfect for Zanuck/Brown,” Lili explains. “I created a slot for myself.” One of her first jobs was as a gofer on the set of The Island, a film property the couple bought during their engagement (and one of Zanuck/Brown’s few flops). “After The Island,” she says, “everything looked easy to me.” She lent a hand to Neighbors, which starred the troubled John Belushi, then worked as a production assistant on The Verdict, which won five Academy Award nominations. “In between,” she says, “I was involved in the learning process of deals and the working of the studio.”

Then, four years ago, Lili came across Cocoon while reading through the slush pile of scripts at the office. She presented it to her husband and Brown, who gave her the go-ahead. Overseeing the film’s $17.5 million budget, she signed young Ron (Splash) Howard to direct. She spotted sultry Tahnee Welch in a magazine and pegged her to play Kitty, the sexy alien. (Coincidentally, it was husband Richard who put Tahnee’s unknown mother, Raquel, in 1967’s One Million Years B.C. and catapulted her to fame.) And, in a move that raised eyebrows even in Hollywood, Lili cast Dick’s second wife, Linda Harrison, in a small role. “My relationship with Linda only seems extraordinary to other people,” explains Lili in her gravelly voice. “We have a great friendship. Both of us have great respect and love for Dick, and we’re both crazy about Linda’s kids. She’s my ex-wife, too.”

Dick and Lili supervised the shooting, a situation that unnerved some of the crew at first. Admits director Howard: “They did spar on the set. They’d get very emotional. Dick would yell, ‘You can’t have him walk in front of a car like that, Honey!’ and Lili would yell back, ‘But it’s more realistic this way, Sugar!’ I kept waiting, expecting the situation to get unpleasant, and I would have to mediate their fights, but then I realized that it was actually a positive force. You can tell they really love working together.” Adds Linda Harrison: “Romance is very much a part of their relationship. They have a good balance between business and romance.”

The story of Lili and Dick’s meeting has a few Hollywood touches of its own. An Army brat, she was born in Massachusetts and lived in Turkey, Greece and Italy before her family settled in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. After graduating from high school, she enrolled briefly in Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. How briefly? “How about lunch hour?” she says with a laugh. Forsaking college Lili took a job as a researcher at the World Bank but found the advancement process too slow.

Joining a fellow employee Lili made tracks for Los Angeles. Along the way the two women indulged themselves at expensive hotels until Lili blew most of her savings in a Las Vegas gambling spree. “I had this concept of California as a place where you couldn’t get Perrier or Brie,” Lili says. “But everyone in Washington said, ‘If you get stuck out in prairie land, go eat at Ma Maison.’ ”

Lili got an administrative position at the Carnation Co. and began dropping in at pricey Ma Maison with her friend. “We thought of it as our local diner,” she says. The move paid off. Pierre Groleau, one of Ma Maison’s owners, noticed Lili right away. “I wondered what two very attractive young women were doing in my restaurant unescorted,” he recalls. “I became friendly with Lili.”

Groleau decided to set up a blind date between Lili (who had been married briefly at 21) and Dick, his recently divorced friend and weekly tennis partner. “It was the first blind date I’d been on in my life,” says Zanuck, who invited Lili to a screening party at his house. When Groleau had first mentioned the striking young woman to Zanuck, he made sure she wasn’t an actress. “I’d been married to two actresses, both for nine years,” he explains. “I asked what her name was,” continues Zanuck, “and Pierre told me, ‘Lili.’ I said, ‘It’s out of the question. My first wife’s name was Lili, and I’m not going out with another Lili.’ ”

Still the meeting took place, and although Lili and Dick agree they didn’t have “an instant good time” with one another, they started dating. “We’d go on all these dates and talk about how we didn’t believe in marriage,” says Lili. “He’d been burned, and I really didn’t believe in that stuff. We talked about not getting married a lot. That was our favorite subject.”

One night, however, Dick had one drink too many and popped the question. “Intelligence went out the window and emotion came pouring in,” says Lili. “We decided to be the exception to the rule and make the marriage work.” Four months after meeting, Dick and Lili were married in the chapel at Stanford University. Only Groleau and his girlfriend attended.

For Lili it was an instant entrée into the business her husband was born into. Dick began selling newspapers on the Fox backlot at age 9. “I knew the lot better than anybody,” he claims. “I sold more Saturday Evening Posts than any paperboy in the U.S. Everybody wanted to buy a paper from the boss’ son.” It was a foregone conclusion that Dick would follow his father into the movie business (the same conclusion he now makes for his two teenage sons). After graduation from Stanford and a brief stint in the Army, the young Zanuck joined Fox as a story and production assistant. One night in 1962, Darryl said to Richard, “Bring me a list of the best guys to run the studio.” Dick remembers, “I thought about it. I told him, ‘There isn’t anybody better than me. Nobody knows the studio better. Nobody knows you better.’ ” Zanuck agreed and installed his 27-year-old son as head of production. Seven years later Richard became president of Twentieth Century Fox: the youngest ever corporate head of a major studio in Hollywood.

Yet the good relations did not last. Increasingly paranoid and suspicious that his son was trying to wrest control from him, Darryl summarily fired Dick at a heated board meeting in 1969. “I was devastated,” says his son. “I walked the beach in front of my house for weeks wondering whether I really had a career left in the motion picture business.”

But the son rose again and persuaded his old friend, producer David Brown, to renounce a five-year contract he had just signed with Warner Bros, and to form an independent production company with him. The partnership flourished.

With Cocoon’s success (to date it has grossed $64 million), Lili Zanuck seems to have squelched the rumors that her talents lie in her proximity to her husband. Motherhood isn’t on Lili’s schedule as “I feel like they [Dick’s two sons] are mine,” she says, “so I don’t feel the need to have other children.”

In seven years of marriage, claims Dick, the Zanucks have never spent a night apart. Clearly this is a relationship that thrives on work. “I don’t know what couples who don’t work together talk about,” says Lili. As they scout their next property, Dick looks to the future. “Lili will inherit the Zanuck mantle,” he says. “She has brains and instinct. Plus she has an excellent instructor—me!”

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