Producer Laura Ziskin dies at 61
'Spider-Man' maven was an advocate for health, environmental issues
By Cynthia Littleton
Laura Ziskin, a trailblazer among femme film producers and a forceful advocate for health and environmental issues, died Sunday of breast cancer at her home in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 61.
Ziskin fought a seven-year battle with the disease, yet remained one of the biz's busiest producers and a champion of causes close to her heart, including Stand Up 2 Cancer, the non-profit org she helped launch in 2008. The org wrangled dozens of stars to participate in telethons in 2008 and 2010 that ran across multiple networks and generated $180 million in donations for cancer research.
Earlier this year, she was honored by the Producers Guild of America with its Visionary Award. She earned the PGA's David O. Selznick life achievement kudo in 2005.
On the big screen, Ziskin steered one of the most successful film franchises in B.O. history as the producer of Sony Pictures' "Spider-Man" series. The first three pics in the series that began in 2002 broke B.O. records around the globe, with "Spider-Man 3" ranking as the highest-grossing pic in the history of Sony Pictures.
The fourth installment, a reboot with a new cast, wrapped production last month.
Ziskin was working on "Spider-Man 2" in 2004 when she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, which had been overlooked by mammograms. "I was a lucky girl: Nothing bad ever happened to me, and then it did," Ziskin told Variety in January.
Friends and colleagues admired her determination not to let the illness slow her down.
Along with contemporaries that included the late Dawn Steel and Sherry Lansing, Ziskin was part of a generation of showbiz women who braved gender bias to rise to prominence as execs and producers in the 1980s and 1990s. During her long career, Ziskin segued easily between roles as an exec and as a producer. She produced or exec produced such notable pics as "Pretty Woman," "What About Bob?," "Hero," "To Die For" and "As Good As it Gets." She exec produced the Oscarcast in 2002, marking the first time a solo femme took the reins of the live telecast, and again in 2007.
In the mid-1980s, she partnered with Sally Field in the Fogwood Films banner, which yielded such pics as the 1985 James Garner starrer "Murphy's Romance."
After graduating from USC's School of Cinematic Arts in 1973, Ziskin's earliest days in the biz included a stint working for producer Jon Peters and as a veep at Kings Road Prods.
Ziskin was named prexy of 20th Century Fox's Fox 2000 division at its founding in 1994 through 2000. On her watch, the unit released such titles as "Courage Under Fire," "One Fine Day," "Inventing the Abbotts," "Soul Food," "Never Been Kissed," "Fight Club," and "The Thin Red Line."
After leaving Fox 2000, she partnered with George Clooney to produce CBS' live telecast of the drama "Fail Safe." She teamed with helmer Norman Jewison for the 2001 HBO telepic "Dinner With Friends."
Ziskin was active in numerous social and philanthropic initiatives, having served on the board of Americans for a Safe Future, the National Council of Jewish Women and Education First.
Ziskin's survivors include her husband, Alvin, and daughter, Julia.
A memorial is being planned. The family requests that donations be made to Stand Up 2 Cancer through the org's website, standup2cancer.org.
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Just found this recent sweet interview of Laura by 8 year old actress, Madison Moellers.
NEW YORK TIMES
Laura Ziskin, Producer of ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Pretty Woman,’ Dies at 61
By ALJEAN HARMETZ
Published: June 13, 2011
LOS ANGELES — Laura Ziskin, a prominent Hollywood producer who ventured into the largely male world of special-effects movies to become a shaping force behind the blockbuster “Spider-Man” franchise, died on Sunday at her home in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 61.
The cause was complications of breast cancer, said Steve Elzer, a spokesman for Sony Pictures. After receiving a diagnosis of advanced breast cancer seven years ago, she became an advocate of cancer research and helped raise money for it.
In a field where women are a minority, Ms. Ziskin had a number of commercial and artistic successes, including “No Way Out” (1987), the taut melodrama that helped make Kevin Costner a star; “What About Bob?,” a 1991 comedy with Bill Murray that she also helped write; “To Die For” (1995), a black comedy starring Nicole Kidman; and “As Good as It Gets,” a 1997 romance with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt that earned best-acting Oscars for both.
As executive producer of “Pretty Woman” (1990), the megahit fairy tale about a romance between a prostitute and a business tycoon, Ms Ziskin insisted on an ending in which Julia Roberts has changed Richard Gere as fully as he has changed her.
“I didn’t want a movie whose message would be that some nice guy will come along and give you nice clothes and lots of money and make you happy,” Ms. Ziskin told People magazine.
“Pretty Woman” established Julia Roberts as a superstar and stands among the most successful box-office romances of all time.
Ms. Ziskin had never produced a special-effects movie when she took on “Spider-Man” (2002), based on the Marvel Comics superhero, but it became a box-office juggernaut, earning almost $115 million its opening weekend, a record then. With Tobey Maguire as a socially awkward superhero who can swing from buildings, the movie offered both dazzling digital effects and teenage angst, a combination that proved irresistible to audiences.
Ms. Ziskin went on to help produce its two sequels as well as a third, the “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which is scheduled to open in 2012.
Though she succeeded handsomely in Hollywood, she did so initially feeling like an outsider. “Historically, the movie business has been a young white man’s business, and there is an ease of men amongst each other because they think alike,” Ms. Ziskin told The Hollywood Reporter in 1996. “When you come into that as a woman, you are an alien to some degree because you think differently.”
Ms. Ziskin broke one barrier in 2002 when she became the first woman to produce the annual Academy Awards show (the 74th) on her own. She produced the show again in 2007.
A native of Southern California, Laura Ellen Ziskin was born on March 3, 1950, and graduated from the University of Southern California film school in 1973. Her first job was writing for “The Newlywed Game” and “The Dating Game.” As an assistant to Jon Peters at Barbra Streisand’s Barwood Films, she got her first screen credit in 1978 as associate producer of “Eyes of Laura Mars,” starring Faye Dunaway.
When her marriage to the screenwriter Julian Barry ended in divorce, leaving her with a young daughter, Julia, Ms. Ziskin became a full-time producer and for a time dragged the girl from location to location.
In 1994, Ms. Ziskin became president of Fox 2000 Pictures, a newly created film division of 20th Century Fox. During her five years there she oversaw movies like “Courage Under Fire” (1996), a military drama with Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan; “Volcano” (1997), a disaster film with Tommy Lee Jones; Terence Malick’s 1998 film adaptation of James Jones’s “Thin Red Line”; and the Brad Pitt vehicle “Fight Club” (1999), a box-office failure that became a success on DVD.
In 2008 she produced an hourlong telethon, “Stand Up to Cancer,” which raised nearly $100 million for cancer research. It was broadcast live on ABC, CBS and NBC simultaneously.
“I got a bad case of cancer in 2004,” Ms. Ziskin told Variety at the time. “When you’re diagnosed with cancer, the last thing you want to do is join a movement. You kind of just want to crawl in a hole.”
But after watching former Vice President Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” she realized, she said, “the power of the medium in which I work to affect how people think.”
She had touched on the subject of cancer in 1991, when she produced “The Doctor,” with William Hurt as a doctor who learns he has throat cancer.
Ms. Ziskin’s survivors include her husband, the screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who wrote a number of films she produced, including three “Spider-Man” movies; her daughter, Julia Barry; her brothers Ken and Randy; a sister, Nina Ziskin; and her mother, Elaine Edelman.
Ms. Ziskin said film producing was a constant balancing of artistic and commercial concerns. “Every day you make compromises when making movies,” she told a reporter. “You hope you don’t make one that sinks you.”
She was disappointed that Hollywood studios had become less willing to take artistic risks. When The Hollywood Reporter asked her which of her movies she thought would not get made today, she answered: “All of them. ‘No Way Out,’ ‘To Die For,’ ‘The Doctor,’ even ‘Pretty Woman.’ The mainstream movie business has become increasingly narrow.”
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