Laura Ziskin, Producer of 'Spider-Man,' 'Pretty Woman,' Dies at 61

8:52 PM PST 06/12/2011 by Mike Barnes
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Laura Ziskin

UPDATED: Ziskin, the first woman to produce the Academy Awards telecast solo, was a driving force behind the Stand Up to Cancer research movement.

Hollywood pioneer Laura Ziskin, the producer of Pretty Woman and the Spider-Man films who was a driving force behind the Stand Up to Cancer research movement, died Sunday at her home in Santa Monica. She was 61.

Ziskin, who became the first woman to produce the Academy Awards telecast alone in 2002, was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in 2004.

In May 2008, Ziskin, along with Katie Couric, Sherry Lansing, the Entertainment Industry Foundation, the Noreen Fraser Foundation and Ellen Ziffren, announced the creation of Stand Up to Cancer. The initiative, which held televisedfund-raising events in 2008 and 2010, is intended to enable cutting-edge research targeting all types of cancer led by "dream teams" of doctors.

Stand Up to Cancer co-founder Katie Couric said: "Laura was one of the most courageous people I’ve ever known. Her fearlessness in the face of this relentless killer inspires everyone on the SU2C team to redouble our efforts to make cancer history."

Q&A: Laura Ziskin on Stand Up to Cancer

With the Spider-Man films at Sony, Ziskin has overseen one of the most successful film franchises in history. Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) have grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide, and Spider-Man 3 (2007) became the highest-grossing film in Sony’s history with his worldwide take of more than $890 million. A rebooted Spider-Man film, also produced by Ziskin, just wrapped shooting in May for release next year.

In 2007, Ziskin produced the Academy Awards for the second time and instituted the first “green” Oscar ceremony.
  
Ziskin in 1984 partnered with Sally Field in Fogwood Films and produced Murphy’s Romance (1985), which starred Field and yielded an Academy Award nomination for James Garner as best actor. She also produced No Way Out (1987) starring newcomer Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman and in 1990 served as an executive producer of Julia Roberts starrer Pretty Woman, which with its $463 million global box office remains one of the top grossing films in Disney’s history.

In 1994, Ziskin was named president of Fox 2000 Pictures, a newly formed feature film division of 20th Century Fox.  Under her stewardship, Fox 2000 released such films as Courage Under Fire, One Fine Day, Inventing the Abbotts, Volcano, Soul Food, Never Been Kissed, Fight Club, Anywhere but Here, Anna and the King and The Thin Red Line, which garnered seven Oscar nominations, including one for best picture. She left Fox 2000 after five years and quickly landed a production deal at Columbia.

In 2000, Ziskin teamed with George Clooney to produce the live television movie Fail Safe, directed by Stephen Frears. It was the first telefilm to air live in more than 35 years and was nominated for six Emmy Awards.

Other credits include What About Bob? (1991), from a story by Ziskin and Alvin Sargent; whom she later married; The Doctor (1991) starring William Hurt and Christine Lahti; Hero (1992), which was also from a story by Ziskin and Sargent, directed by Frears and starring Dustin Hoffman, Andy Garcia and Geena Davis; To Die For (1995), starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Gus Van Sant; and As Good As It Gets (1997), which garnered Oscars for actors Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson.

She was nominated for three Emmys -- for her Oscar shows (hosted by Whoopi Goldberg and Ellen DeGeneres, respectively) and for the 2002 HBO telefilm Dinner With Friends. She coaxed the reclusive Woody Allen into appearing at the 2002 Academy Awards telecast.

A David O. Selznick Award and Visionary Award recipient from the Producers Guild of America, Ziskin was a leading force behind the first Stand Up to Cancer televised event, simulcast on all three major networks on Sept. 5, 2008, to raise awareness about cancer and funds to support groundbreaking cancer research. The one-hour special, which combined entertainment, education and musical performances, was the first “roadblock” event raising money to proactively combat a major public health threat (the only previous roadblocks had been in response to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina).

More than 100 celebrities donated their time to appear in the show and in public service announcements promoting it, including Halle Berry, Josh Brolin, Morgan Freeman, Sidney Poitier, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank, Tilda Swinton, Charlize Theron and Forest Whitaker.

The SU2C initiative, which aims to accelerate the pace of cancer research in order to get more effective treatments to patients, awarded the first installments of more than $70 million worth of three-year grants to a number of interdisciplinary, multi-institutional dream reams of researchers in 2009, one year after the initiative’s launch.

Last September, the second Stand Up to Cancer event aired on all four major networks and more than a dozen cable outlets, and more than 100 celebrities and musicians donated their time once again to promote the initiative, including Clooney, Denzel Washington, Gwyneth Paltrow,  Michael Douglas, Sally Field, Renee Zellweger, Kathy Bates, Stevie Wonder and Lady Antebellum.

Last year, Ziskin told the Los Angeles Times magazine that a line that President Obama used on the first Stand Up to Cancer telecast resonated with her: “We need to wage a war on cancer as aggressive as cancer wages on us.”

"And we need to do it now," she continued. "We need to make cancer the manageable chronic disease it can be. There are 12 million cancer survivors in this country. Stand Up to Cancer’s goal is to make everyone who is diagnosed a survivor. I am one of them. It has been almost six years since my diagnosis, so I am proof that you can live with it, and live well. To quote (her doctor), “Cancer is the only game where a tie is a win.”

Ziskin, who graduated from USC School of Cinema-Television in 1973 and got her start as a personal assistant to producer Jon Peters, also served on the board of Americans for a Safe Future, the National Council of Jewish Women and Education First.

In addition to Sargent, survivors include a daughter, Julia. A memorial is being planned.

For those wishing to honor Ziskin, the family requests donations be made to Stand Up to Cancer through the organization's website at www.standup2cancer.org.

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