American director Robert Zemeckis studied filmmaking at Northern Illinois University, and then got his start with a job with the film editing department at WMAQ-TV, Chicago's NBC flagship station. After commercial work, Zemeckis and his friend and collaborator, Bob Gale, became assistants to Steven Spielberg. It was Spielberg who lined up Zemeckis' first directing job, the 1977 comedy/nostalgia blend I Wanna Hold Your Hand; despite the film's low budget, it demonstrated Zemeckis' ability to combine credible live-action sequences with elaborate special effects devices. Spielberg next had Zemeckis and Gale work on the screenplay of 1941 (1979), which, despite its disappointing box-office returns, convinced the young director that his protegés were valuable commodities.
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Working again under Spielberg's aegis, Zemeckis directed his first real financial success, Romancing the Stone (1981), a wild adventure yarn that somehow never lost sight of its sense of humor. The director then took on Back to the Future (1984) and its two sequels, once again proving that live actors could be combined with special effects to produce spectacular results. Zemeckis further proved this when, in collaboration with Spielberg and cartoon producer Richard Williams, he directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), a groundbreaking combination of cartoon animation and "real" action, which went on to become one of the decade's biggest moneymakers. By the early '90s, Zemeckis was recognized as a director of great technical skill but little personal viewpoint, something that changed with the 1994 release of Forrest Gump. Beyond its top-heavy special effects, the film was a distinctly human drama about a mildly retarded young man (Tom Hanks) who achieves professional and personal success by refusing to see anything but the good in people. Expected to be a moderately profitable feature, Forrest Gump amazed everyone by becoming the top moneyspinner of the summer of 1994 -- and one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. As an added bonus, it helped Zemeckis snag a Best Director Oscar, as well as several other awards.
He found further success, albeit moderate by comparison, with Contact, a 1997 film starring Jodie Foster as an astronomer seeking out extraterrestrial life forms. The 1990s also found the frequent director becoming much more active as a producer, and in addition to producing many of his own films Zemeckis also backed future Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson on his first stateside feature The Frighteners. As he continued to produce such William Castle remakes as The House on Haunted Hill and Thir13en Ghosts, Zemeckis prepaired to shoot his next feature, a film that once again found him teaming with Forrest Gump star Hanks. A memorable adventure drama concerning a dedicated FedEx executive's struggle for survival after enduring a horrific plane crash and becoming stranded on a deserted island, the filming of Cast Away was halted halfway through so that star Hanks could physically transform himself for the demanding role - and in the meantime Zemeckis took the helm for the Harrison Ford/Michelle Pheiffer fright fest What Lies Beneath. In the end both films performed fairly well at the box office, even if Cast Away had recieved a somewhat negative reaction by many due to its meditative pacing and open ended coda. By the time The Polar Express hit theaters it had been nearly four years since Zemeckis had invaded the multiplexes. A holiday hit featuring vocal contributions by Tom Hanks and Daryl Sabara, The Polar Express thrilled families in both traditional theaters and as an IMAX 3D release, and took in an impressive pull at the domestic box office.
His credits as a producer steadily grew as he played an instrumental part in bringing such diverse efforts as House of Wax and The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio to the screen, Zemeckis continued his efforts to provide fun frights for viewers of all ages by serving as executive producer of both the kid-friendly, computer animated haunted house flick Monster House, and producer to the apocalyptic Hilary Swank starer The Reaping. Back in the director's chair, Zemeckis would be putting the finishing touches on the Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery-scripted adventure fantasy Beowulf - an Eighth Century tale of good versus evil inspired by the popular Old English poem of the same name.
He had a huge hit in 2009 with the Jim Carrey starring motion-capture version of A Christmas Carol, however audiences rejected Mars Needs Moms, an animated film he helped produce. He returned to live-action actors with 2012's drama Flight, and followed that up with a remake of The Beatles Yellow Submarine.
~ Hal Erickson, Rovi