Zanuck's publicist says he died of a heart attack at his Beverly Hills home.
Zanuck's run of successes as an independent producer rivaled the achievements of his legendary father who reigned over 20th Century Fox from the 1930s until age and changing audience tastes brought him down.
The production company the younger Zanuck founded with David Brown produced "The Sting" in 1973, as well as Steven Spielberg's first feature film, "The Sugarland Express," in 1974 and Spielberg's first blockbuster, "Jaws," in 1975. "The Sting" also won the best movie Oscar, although Zanuck and Brown were not listed as its producers. "Jaws" was nominated for best picture, as was the Zanuck-produced "The Verdict."
"In 1974, Dick Zanuck and I sat in a boat off Martha's Vineyard and watched the mechanical shark sink to the bottom of the sea," Spielberg recalled in a statement Friday. "Dick turned to me and smiled. 'Gee, I sure hope that's not a sign.' That moment forged a bond between us that lasted nearly 40 years. He taught me everything I know about producing. He was one of the most honorable and loyal men of our profession and he fought tooth and nail for his directors."
Zanuck most recently produced the big-screen adaptation of the cult classic TV series "Dark Shadows," directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Other Zanuck films include "MacArthur" and "Cocoon."
In 1976, Zanuck and Brown announced a much-publicized deal with the estate of novelist Margaret Mitchell to produce a sequel to "Gone With the Wind." A book and script were prepared, but the project never materialized on film.
In 1988, Zanuck and Brown dissolved their partnership amicably, and Zanuck formed a new venture with his third wife, Lili Fini Zanuck. They won the Oscar with their first movie together, "Driving Miss Daisy."
"Richard was a good and longtime friend," said Morgan Freeman, who co-starred with Jessica Tandy in the 1989 film. "A very fine producer who was wonderful to work for and with."
The contrasts between Richard and Darryl Zanuck were many and led to father-son clashes throughout their respective careers.
Richard Zanuck was reserved, soft-spoken and friendly with directors, writers and actors, and he liked to operate from behind his desk.
His authoritarian father, on the other hand, paced his office, issuing orders in a squeaky voice and sometimes wielding a polo mallet (in his early years he had played polo with other Hollywood figures). He would reach decisions quickly, and once he did they became studio law.
But after decades of success, the studio began to flounder under his rein in the 1960s when the big-budget movie musical era died and films such as "Doctor Dolittle," ''Star" and "Hello, Dolly" failed to earn their money back.
Under pressure from the board of directors, he fired his son in 1970 in an effort to save his own job, but the maneuver failed and he soon followed him out the door.
The dismissal shattered the younger Zanuck, and it was not until shortly before Darryl Zanuck's death in 1979 that the pair resolved their differences.
"It was different from the usual father-son relationship," Zanuck told The New York Times in 2003. "But I was able to patch everything up before my father died."
His ouster had not been the first time the Zanucks left Fox.
During an earlier period of financial trouble, Darryl Zanuck was fired in 1956 by the studio's board of directors and had become an independent producer, operating from Paris, where he had affairs with three French actresses in succession. He also sponsored their careers, but with little success.
While he was making a film in Africa, he appointed his son Richard, who had left Fox after his father's ouster, to produce a drama based on the Leopold-Loeb murder case of the 1920s. The result, 1959's "Compulsion."
Soon after, Zanuck's father embarked on "The Longest Day," a costly film about World War II's D-Day and its aftermath, with realistic battle scenes and dozens of well-known actors. He brought his son on as executive producer, and the film was one of the biggest hits of 1962.
Fox, still struggling, decided to rehire Zanuck in 1962 as company president and he appointed Richard as production chief. His reign brought one huge hit, "The Sound of Music" but such other so-so films as "Crack in the Mirror," William Faulkner's "Sanctuary" and "Star!"
After his success with "Driving Miss Daisy," Richard Zanuck continued as an independent producer. Among his films: "Rush" (directed by Lili Fini Zanuck), "Chain Reaction," ''Along Came a Spider," ''Rules of Engagement," ''Planet of the Apes 2001," 2002's "The Road to Perdition" and 2005's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
Richard Darryl Zanuck was born in 1934, the third child and only son of the mercurial mogul and his wife, former actress Virginia Fox Zanuck. His mother had appeared in several Buster Keaton shorts in the years before her marriage to the elder Zanuck in 1924.
Richard Zanuck had grown up at 20th Century Fox, once recalling, "When I was a kid I was playing hide-and-seek on the movie back lot."
As a student at a military school and later at Stanford University, he had worked summers at the studio in various departments, including editing and story. After graduation, he became a special assistant to his father.
Richard Zanuck's first wife was actress Lili Gentle and the couple had two daughters, Virginia and Janet. His second wife was also an actress, Linda Harrison, and they had two sons, Harrison and Dean. Both marriages ended in divorce.