Just like that, highly respected veteran producer Richard Zanuck died this morning at age 77. What a trooper, what a life. The son of legendary 20th Century Fox founder Daryl F. Zanuck, he learned the ropes in the early ’60s and cut his teeth and became a smart, tough operator with a knack for churning out solid, middle-of-the-road, well-made films, most notably Jaws, The Sugarland Express, Compulsion, The Sound of Music, The Verdict, Cocoon, Driving Miss Daisy (ouch) and Sweeney Todd.

Zanuck was never radical or renegade. He played the game safely, but always with taste and diligence and political skill. This is very sad news. Condolences to friends, family and colleagues, and especially Zanuck’s wife Lili Fini Zanuck and his longtime collaborator Tim Burton, with whom he made six films.

Zanuck is, I believe, the only studio chief to have been whacked by his own father. He became president of 20th Century Fox in the mid ’60s and oversaw its post-Cleopatra rebound with the success of The Sound of Music, but the ignominious failure of Doctor Dolittle, the 1967 Rex Harrison talk-to-the-animals fantasy, prompted his chairman-of-the-board dad to cut him loose.

Zanuck took a gig as a Warner Bros. exec vp, and in ’72 he partnered with the wise and elegant David Brown, one of the best guys I’ve ever known in this industry, to form Zanuck/Brown, which was based at Universal Pictures. It was this partnership that led to Zanuck’s greatest run.

I wish I could find a clip from Laurent Bouzereau‘s fascinating documentary about the making of Jaws. (It’s available on the 2005 Jaws DVD, and should be on the forthcoming Bluray.) It was this doc that told me what a steady and fair-minded guy Zanuck was — a guy who could roll with the punches and hang tough when push came to shove.

Zabuck’s other credits include The Black Windmill, The Eiger Sanction, Clean Slate, Mulholland Falls, Deep Impact, Rules of Engagement, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans and Dark Shadows.

Spokesperson Jeff Sanderson told Reuters this morning that Zanuck died of a heart attack.