May 14, 1952
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Director, Producer, Screenwriter, Actor, Editor
Leslie Harter, Mary Ellen Trainor
PhotosView All (13)
With a flair for special effects and an impressive track record for eliciting strong performances, director Robert Zemeckis emerged from the University of Southern California's film school to become a potent filmmaking force in Hollywood. Though his first professional job was writing the script for Steven Spielberg's much-maligned World War II comedy "1941" (1979), Zemeckis staked his reputation as a hit maker with his third directing effort, "Romancing the Stone" (1984), which became a surprise box office success despite low expectations. But it was his next film, "Back to the Future" (1985) that cemented his place in Hollywood as a reliable director of both commercially successful and critically acclaimed movies. By this time, he was earning a reputation for pushing the boundaries of technology onscreen, though often with some criticism for focusing too much on visual effects. Still, Zemeckis continued to churn out hits, including the two "Back to the Future" sequels, as well as the animated-live action hybrid "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988). He achieved esteemed status when he won an Academy Award for his exemplary drama, "Forrest Gump" (1994), which, along with "Back to the Future, became a high water mark in his career. Though he slipped a bit with efforts like "Death Becomes Her" (1992), "Contact" (1997) and "What Lies Beneath" (2000), Zemeckis proved time and again with films like "Cast Away" (2000) and the groundbreaking "Polar Express" (2004) that he was capable of tackling challenging material while remaining commercially viable.
Born on May 14, 1951 in Chicago, IL, Zemeckis was raised in a working-class Catholic family where he had little, if any, exposure to the arts. His only education was through television, which informed him via Jerry Lewis being interviewed by Johnny Carson that there was such a thing as film school. By the time he was a junior in high school, he was making 8mm films with his family's home movie camera. After spending his first two years of college at Northern Illinois University, Zemeckis transferred to the University of Southern California to earn his Bachelor of Fine Arts in film. It was while attending USC that he met kindred spirit and future screenwriting partner Bob Gale, who shared Zemeckis' love of American cinema; a belief that stood in stark contrast to their peers' adulation of European art films. As a student, he earned his first acclaim by winning a Student Academy Award for the 14-minute short, "Field of Honor" (1973), which managed to catch the attention of USC alums John Milius and Steven Spielberg. The two offered both Zemeckis and Gale a development deal, which led to both writing the script for the critically lambasted World War II comedy, "1941" (1979), directed by Spielberg and starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
Prior to his first collaboration with Spielberg, he wrote the screenplay with Gale for his feature debut, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" (1978), a cheeky musical comedy about three young girls (Nancy Allen, Wendie Jo Sperber and Theresa Saldana) trying to meet the Beatles before they go on their famed appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show." Zemeckis and Gale teamed up again for "Used Cars" (1980), a low-brow comedy about a hot-shot used car salesman (Kurt Russell) trying to save his lot from being taken over by his rival (Jack Warden). Despite occasionally inspired humor in both films, neither garnered much attention at the box office. But "Used Cars" did managed to attract Michael Douglas, who as producer and star, hired Zemeckis to helm "Romancing the Stone" (1984), an action comedy about a repressed romance novelist (Kathleen Turner) joining forces with a soldier of fortune (Douglas) to save her kidnapped sister from the jungles of South America. Despite troubles on the set and studio insiders believing the film would flop, "Romancing the Stone" became a surprise hit, allowing Zemeckis to make his next film - one of the biggest, most iconic movies of the 1980s.
With Gale producing and co-writing, Zemeckis directed the immensely popular, clever and surprisingly poignant "Back to the Future" (1985), an adventure comedy about Marty McFly, a 1980s teenager (Michael J. Fox) who is whisked back to 1955 via a time machine created by his mad scientist friend (Christopher Lloyd), only to inadvertently disrupt the moment his parents meet. With little time to spare, Marty must arrange for his parents to fall in love before his very existence is erased. Funny, genuine and full of exciting set pieces, "Back to the Future" was a monster hit for Zemeckis, while helping turn Fox into a bankable movie star. After writing and directing "Go to the Head of the Class," a darkly comic hour-long installment of Steven Spielberg's fantasy anthology series, "Amazing Stories" (NBC, 1985-87), Zemeckis directed "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988), a technological breakthrough that seamlessly wedded animation with live action in a comedic fantasy about a down-and-out 1940s private eye (Bob Hoskins) who partners with a cartoon rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) to save Toon Town from the dark machinations of Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd). Hailed by critics and audiences, "Roger Rabbit" was another giant box office hit for the director.
Zemeckis returned to the well to direct "Back to the Future Part II" (1989), a less clever sequel that saw Marty McFly continue his time-jumping adventures, but this time, in the year 2015. Back on the small screen, he served as one of several high-profile executive producers on the long-running anthology series, "Tales from the Crypt" (HBO, 1989-1996), holding the position for the show's entire cable run. Meanwhile, he directed "Back to the Future Part II" (1990), the third and final installment to the franchise that actually started filming while he was still working on the second part. This time, Marty goes all the way back to the Old West of 1885 where he tries to save Doc Brown (Lloyd) from the villainous Tannen Gang. After writing with Gale the surprisingly hard-boiled action script for Walter Hill's riveting "Trespass" (1992), Zemeckis branched out into producing for network television, including the short-lived "Johnny Bago" (CBS 1993), as well as features like "The Public Eye" (1992). Zemeckis' next feature, "Death Becomes Her" (1992), was both a commercial and critical disappointment, though the special effects that helped transform Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep into indestructible zombies won an Academy Award.
Despite that disappointing effort, Zemeckis had perhaps the greatest triumph of his career with "Forrest Gump" (1994), a fanciful and often moving comedy-drama about a simple Southern man (Tom Hanks) with a low IQ who finds himself at the forefront of major events from the 1960s through the 1980s, all the while pining for the love of his childhood friend, Jenny (Robin Wright). Typically in love with special effects over the other elements of storytelling, Zemeckis proved to critics that he could also tackle a large-scale story that was held down by genuine human emotions. Adapted from the book by Winston Groom, "Forrest Gump" featured Hanks delivering one of his finest performance as a child-like man who teaches Elvis Presley how to dance, becomes a college football star, wins a Medal of Honor fighting in Vietnam, meets presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and starts a shrimp-catching business with his now legless Army sergeant (Gary Sinese). Not only was the film a huge box office and critical success, lines like "Stupid is as stupid does," and "Life is like a box of chocolates" entered into the cultural lexicon. But the film was not without its technical marvels; Zemeckis seamlessly inserted Hanks into archival footage, including having him watch the integration at the University of Alabama, while effectively making Sinese look like he did indeed lose his legs. Most importantly, "Forrest Gump" was lavished with numerous awards which culminated in six Academy Awards, including statues for Best Picture and Best Director for Zemeckis.
Biding his time after such a monumental success, Zemeckis chose to wait nearly three years before helming his next project, the ponderous adaptation of Carl Sagan's "Contact" (1997). Despite terrific special effects, the film was bogged down addressing big themes like spirituality and technology that failed to translate well into clear storytelling. The pretentious tone alienated most reviewers while audiences were unable to fully embrace it. Zemeckis went another three years before directing his next feature. In that time, he turned to the small screen, participating in the documentary series, "In the 20th Century" by probing America's reaction to its vices in "Robert Zemeckis on Smoking, Drinking and Drugging in the 20th Century: The Pursuit of Happiness" (Showtime, 1999).Through interviews with historians and drug treatment professionals, Zemeckis explored America' long-running relationship with various mind-altering substances. He returned to the big screen with two major films, starting with "What Lies Beneath" (2000), a tense thriller that clearly demonstrated both his strengths and weaknesses. While delivering on a visceral and technological sense, the pedestrian nature of the ghost-haunting thriller coupled with the histrionic performances from stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford helped turn the Hitchcockian thriller into a derivative wannabe.
Zemeckis' second film of that year, "Cast Away" (2000), was far more intriguing and ultimately successful. Joining forces again with "Forrest Gump" star Tom Hanks, Zemeckis took on the challenge of a story that had little dialogue in its second act to craft a critically-lauded drama that earned considerable praise, numerous awards and a hefty share of the box office. "Cast Away" told the tale of Chuck Noland (Hanks), a Federal Express systems analyst obsessed with time who survives a plane crash and awakens by himself on a deserted island, while his fiancé (Helen Hunt) wonders whether or not he is alive. Prior to Noland's ill-fated flight, Zemeckis did an excellent job of setting up the emotional stakes with his two main characters, while staging a harrowing, all-too-real crash sequence. The bulk of the film took place on the island, where Noland's only conversations were with a volleyball imprinted with his blood that he names Wilson. While the film could have easily devolved into a maudlin claptrap of a man longing for home, Zemeckis instead managed to draw another fine performance from Hanks while carefully balancing the survival drama with fear, regret and humor. The director's only mistake was overstepping in the third act with Noland's overly sentimental return to civilization. Still, "Cast Away" was one of the director's finer dramatic efforts, earning Hanks another Oscar nod and netting over $400 million worldwide.
Following "Cast Away," Zemeckis settled into the role of producer while taking a step back from directing to shepherd projects like "Thir13en Ghosts" (2001), "Ghost Ship" (2002), "Matchstick Men" (2003) and "Gothika" (2003). In the meantime, the director was conducting tests on his own dime to see if he could successfully adapt the popular children's book The Polar Express into a CGI-animated film for the big screen. Intrigued by the technological challenge of collaborating again with Hanks, this time with the actor playing all of the roles, Zemeckis' production team experimented with a new technology called Performance Capture, which allowed computers to capture the subtle nuances of an actor's performance and transfer it to the CGI character. Once he had determined that this technology worked, Zemeckis put the film into production and released it in 2004. An instant holiday season classic, the film told the story of a young boy excited for Christmas who goes on an unforgettable train ride while embarking on a journey of self discovery. Despite the film's success, however, critics worried that his use of the technology would eventually lead to the elimination of actors, while the technology itself gave the characters a creepy, dead-eye look.
After returning to producer duties on "House of Wax" (2005), "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" (2005) and the animated "Monster House" (2006), Zemeckis employed the same Performance Capture technology from "Polar Express" to animate Ray Winstone, John Malkovich, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie and a host of other top actors for "Beowulf" (2007). Adapted from the Old English epic poem, the film earned Zemeckis praise for his deft use of the technology while essentially staying true to the original story of a mighty warrior's defeat of the demon Grendel. Sticking with a winning formula, he used the technology for his third straight film; this time capturing the considerable motion of Jim Carrey for the faithful adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic, "A Christmas Carol" (2009), in which the rubbery actor portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge, as well as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Returning to live action for the first time since "Cast Away" (2000) and making his first R-rated film since "Used Cars" (1980), Zemeckis directed the widely hailed drama "Flight" (2012), which starred Denzel Washington as an airline pilot with a substance abuse problem who averts disaster by making a daring crash-landing after his plane malfunctions, only to see his heroic actions questioned during an investigation. Co-starring Don Cheadle, John Goodman and Bruce Greenwood, "Flight" generated serious Oscar buzz while also courting controversy for depicting a pilot flying a plane while under the influence. Anheuser-Busch formally petitioned Paramount Pictures to remove or obscure their Budweiser logo due to Washington drinking the beer while flying the plane.