Since moving into film at age 50 with 1972's low-budget country-music drama "Payday," Zaentz made just 10 movies, giving him a remarkable three-for-10 batting average on best-picture wins at the Oscars.
Among Zaentz's other films were the 1978 animated version of "The Lord of the Rings," which later paved the way for the blockbuster live action trilogy.
He also brought out the 1986 Harrison Ford drama "The Mosquito Coast"; 1998's acclaimed "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," which co-starred "English Patient" Oscar winner Juliette Binoche; and 1991's "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," a critical and commercial flop despite a cast that included Kathy Bates, Tom Berenger and John Lithgow.
Zaentz was a throwback to old Hollywood, a producer who cared tremendously about his films and would go to extremes to get them right, often putting his own money up to help finance them.
He appreciated unique personal vision in directors, taking chances on relatively untested filmmakers.
Anthony Minghella had made just two small films when Zaentz picked him to direct "The English Patient," whose awards included the best-director Oscar. Czech director Milos Forman had worked on films mostly in his home country when producers Zaentz and Michael Douglas chose him to make "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Forman also directed "Amadeus."
With "Lord of the Rings," whose film rights he acquired in the mid-1970s, Zaentz rejected all suitors interested in doing a live-action version until he saw New Zealand director Peter Jackson's visually striking "Heavenly Creatures."
Though Zaentz's involvement was limited and he did not share in the producing credits, he gave full blessing to Jackson's mammoth, three-film "Lord of the Rings" production. He later sued over royalties, however; the dispute was settled out of court in 2005.
A lavish theatrical version of the tale was mounted in Toronto in March 2006, but closed six months later. The show was trimmed and reworked for a run in London, where it ran for 13 months, though it had still failed to impress some critics.
Zaentz entered the movie business after growing bored with his successful recording-industry career, which included the Fantasy Records label he bought in 1967.
Largely a jazz label whose catalog includes albums by Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, Fantasy also released albums by Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose leader John Fogerty later feuded with Zaentz in bitter court fights.
Fogerty had to change the name of a song on his 1980s solo album, after Zaentz said he was being libeled. (It became "Vanz Kant Danz.") Zaentz lost his lawsuit against Fogerty claiming the musician's song "Old Man Down the Road" copied the melody from "Run Through the Jungle," a Creedence tune that remained in the Fantasy library.
After Zaentz sold Fantasy in 2004, Fogerty made peace with the label's new owners.
Zaentz had worked in the music industry for nearly two decades when he decided to try his hand at film. He tended to go after the rights to literary works he loved, and one of the first was Ken Kesey's novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
Kirk Douglas owned the film rights. Zaentz said in a 1985 interview in the journal American Film that Douglas would only sell the rights if he could star.
Uninterested in those terms, Zaentz went off and produced "Payday," which starred Rip Torn and cost $76,000, "of which we got $61,000 back" from the little seen film, Zaentz said. By then, Michael Douglas had obtained the "Cuckoo's Nest" rights from his father, and he and Zaentz teamed up to make the film with Jack Nicholson.
The film won five Oscars and was the first since "It Happened One Night" 42 years earlier to sweep the top four categories: best picture, director (Forman), actor (Nicholson) and actress (Louise Fletcher).
Zaentz's next film, the 1977 American Indian drama "Three Warriors," quickly disappeared, and he later admitted his animated "Lord of the Rings" from 1978 had missed the mark.
Reteaming with Forman, Zaentz made "Amadeus," adapted from Peter Shaffer's play that whimsically examined the relationship between Mozart and rival composer Salieri. "Amadeus" won eight Oscars.
Zaentz topped that with "The English Patient," which won nine. The film nearly fell apart after original backer 20th Century Fox shut it down because Zaentz declined to recast with a bigger-name cast.
Miramax rescued the film, with Zaentz putting up cash of his own to round out the budget.
The same night "The English Patient" triumphed at the Oscars, Zaentz received the Irving G. Thalberg Award, a lifetime-achievement honor for producers.
"My cup is full," Zaentz said in accepting the award. After "The English Patient" won best picture, Zaentz added: "I said my cup was full before. Now it runneth over."
Born Feb. 28, 1921, in Passaic, N.J., Zaentz earned a degree in poultry husbandry from Rutgers University. He served in Africa and Sicily and aboard troop ships in the North Atlantic and Pacific during World War II.
After the war, Zaentz attended business college and moved to San Francisco, where he worked for a small record distributor and later joined jazz producer Norman Granz, working on recordings and concerts.