After standing up to cancer personally for the past seven years and professionally for the past three, Laura Ziskin, 61, Hollywood producer and a cofounder of Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) died at home in Santa Monica, California, June 12, of Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
She was first diagnosed with lobular breast cancer in 2004, which recurred in 2009, with the cancer spreading to her liver and bones.
I had interviewed her several times over the years and remember the passion she expressed during our first conversation about the then-fledgling effort to increase public awareness about cancer and to accelerate its research benefits to patient care (OT, 9/25/08).
I also recalled her excitement earlier this year when she told me about SU2C's buying the film rights to The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, and her plans to produce a television documentary series based on its content (OT, 2/10/11).
When the book was subsequently awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, one of her friends told me at the time that Laura had predicted the Pulitzer months earlier, and had screamed with delight about the public recognition of a book dealing with a disease that was finally becoming somewhat less dreaded.
Pamela Williams, Ms. Ziskin's production partner of 11 years and the newest member of Stand Up's Executive Leadership Council (which includes Sherry Lansing, Katie Couric, Rusty Robertson, Sue Schwartz, Ellen Ziffren, Noreen Fraser, Lisa Paulsen, and Kathleen Lobb) said during a telephone interview that Laura had touched so many people's lives and although her life was big and impactful she had always focused on others on a personal level.
“It's hard to imagine that she's gone and to think of life without her….She was so ferocious and such a fighter, and she pushed everyone to do better.
“We were sitting around with Laura's husband, Alvin Sargent [an Academy Award-winning screenwriter], and her oncologist, John Glaspy, and John suggested we make T-shirts that read ‘What would Laura do?,’ and now we're going to create T-shirts and hats and buttons with that saying.”
She said that Ms. Ziskin was adamant that obituaries not use the phrase “she died following a long battle with cancer”—”Laura wanted to be remembered as someone who had lived with cancer,” Ms. Williams said, also noting that Ms. Ziskin had used her skills as a film producer in her cancer advocacy.
Not How Much Money, But Where It Goes
“Laura as the patient would say that it's not so much about how much money we raised but about where it goes. She was focused on bringing together the best minds and would say ‘What is the problem and how can we creatively solve it?’”
Ms. Williams said that production of the Emperor of All Maladies documentary and the future Stand Up telecasts would continue under Laura Ziskin Productions.
Nobel Laureate Philip A. Sharp, PhD, Institute Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, chairs the SU2C American Association for Cancer Research's Scientific Advisory Committee that has oversight for the five interdisciplinary, multi-institutional scientific “Dream Teams” and the 26 Innovative Research Grants.
“Laura was always pressing us to work as interactively as we possibly could with as many people, organizations, and agencies as we could to advance the treatment of cancer,” he said.
“She was a very passionate voice and very sophisticated when talking to people involved in cancer research and treatment.”
He added that it was not always easy to work with her because she could be very demanding — “but in a positive way.”
“I think she has changed how people view cancer research in this country and around the world, and I've never seen anyone more committed to life than Laura.”
Kathleen Lobb, another Stand Up cofounder and senior vice president with the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), the not-for-profit charitable arm of the entertainment industry that sponsors SU2C, said that Ms. Ziskin's singular contribution came from her being the “pissed-off patient” who wanted progress quickly.
‘Jazzed about Cancer Research’
“Her genius as a filmmaker allowed her to draw upon the entertainment industry to get the average person jazzed about cancer research,” she said.
Ms. Lobb also mentioned her recent conversation with cofounder Katie Couric who said that Laura's loss was a motivating factor to redouble Stand Up's efforts to realize Laura's dream to make every person diagnosed with cancer a survivor.
And Sherry Lansing, also a SU2C cofounder, founder of the Sherry Lansing Foundation, and EIF's board chair, called Laura an inspiration. “Someone asked me about her work life and accomplishments as a woman, and I said that Laura just did the work.
“She was diagnosed with a horrible cancer and went through some brutal treatments, but she never let it stop her. That is, until a week ago. She was the impatient patient, and had great energy, passion, intelligence, and vision.”
Ms. Ziskin took all her energy that she used successfully in the movie business and applied it to finding novel funding mechanisms to help defeat cancer, Ms. Lansing added. “She was the spirit and conscience of Stand Up, and we are now even more motivated to continue this work and honor her legacy.”
During a 35-year career as a producer and studio executive, Ms. Ziskin produced numerous films (including the Spider-Man series, Pretty Woman, Murphy's Romance — with her then-partner Sally Field, No Way Out, What about Bob?, and To Die For) and was executive producer of the two Stand Up To Cancer multi-network televised fundraising specials in 2008 and 2010.
She was also the first woman to serve as solo executive producer of the Academy Awards in 2002, and again in 2007, and was president of Fox 2000 Pictures, a film division of 20th Century Fox.
In addition to her husband, she is survived by her daughter from a previous marriage, Julia Barry, and a son-in-law, Eli Dansky.
A memorial service is being planned for a future date. The family requests that donations be made to Stand Up To Cancer.