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

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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Sony released Ziskin's bio late Sunday:

Laura Ziskin has established herself as one of Hollywood’s leading independent producers and studio executives with a passion for discovering new talent.
 
Well known for her work producing the Spider-Man franchise, Ziskin has overseen one of the most successful film franchises in history. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 have grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide and Spider-Man 3, which broke box office records worldwide, has become the highest grossing film in Sony’s history. A new Spider-Man film just wrapped shooting this past May.
 
In 2007, Ziskin produced the Academy Awards® for the second time and instituted the first ever “Green” Oscar ceremony.  The show was nominated for 9 Emmy Awards.  In March 2002, she produced the 74th Annual Academy Awards® (the first woman to produce the awards solo). The show was nominated for eight Emmy Awards including Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special.
  
In 1984, Ziskin partnered with Sally Field in Fogwood Films and produced Murphy’s Romance, which yielded an Academy Award® nomination for James Garner as Best Actor.  She also produced No Way Out starring then newcomer Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman.  In 1990, she was Executive Producer of Pretty Woman, which remains one of the highest grossing films in Disney’s history.

In 1991, Ziskin produced two films, the comedy hit What About Bob?, from a story by Ziskin and Alvin Sargent, starring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss and the critically acclaimed The Doctor starring William Hurt and Christine Lahti under the direction of Randa Haines.  In 1992, Ziskin produced Hero, which was also from a story by Ziskin and Sargent, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Dustin Hoffman, Andy Garcia, and Geena Davis.  In 1994, she produced To Die For starring Nicole Kidman (who won a Golden Globe as Best Actress – Musical or Comedy) and directed by Gus Van Sant.  She also developed and served as Executive Producer of Columbia Pictures’ As Good As It Gets, which garnered Academy Awards® for stars Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson.

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 Academy Award® nominations including Best Picture.
 
In 2000, just after stepping down from Fox 2000 Pictures, Ziskin teamed with George Clooney to produce the live television movie FAIL SAFE, directed by Stephen Frears.  It was the first television movie to be aired live in over 35 years.  It was nominated for six Emmy Awards as well as a Golden Globe nomination for Best Television Movie.  It also received PGA and DGA nominations.
 
Ziskin also Executive Produced the Norman Jewison-directed HBO Film Dinner With Friends written by Donald Margulies from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play and starring Dennis Quaid, Andie MacDowell, Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette. The film was nominated for two Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Made for Television Movie.
 
 Ziskin has been actively involved in issues that concern health, the environment, and families, having served on the board of Americans for a Safe Future, the National Council of Jewish Women and Education First.  In addition she was honored by Senator Barbara Boxer as a “Woman Making History” and by the City of Hope as “Woman of the Year.”  She has also been honored with Premiere Magazine’s “Women in Hollywood” award, the Big Sisters of Los Angeles Sterling Award, Women’s Image Network Award, Women In Film’s Crystal Award, the Israel Film Festival’s Visionary Award, The Wellness Community’s Human Spirit Award, and The Producers Guild of America’s David O. Selznick Award as well as the Visionary Award. Ziskin is a 1973 graduate of the University of Southern California USC School of Cinematic Arts where she returned to teach the first class in the Peter Stark Producers program.  She received the Mary Pickford Alumni Award from USC in 1999.

In 2008 Ziskin, along with like-minded women in the entertainment industry with a similar desire to make a real impact in the fight against cancer, founded Stand Up To Cancer.  Ziskin executive produced the historic Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) televised event, simulcast on all three major networks on September 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 ever “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). Over 100 celebrities donated their time to appear in the show and in public service announcements promoting it, including Academy Award-winning actors Halle Berry, Josh Brolin, Morgan Freeman, Sidney Poitier, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank, Tilda Swinton, Charlize Theron and Forest Whitaker.  Stand Up To Cancer is one of only eight programs from 2008 honored by the Academy of TV Arts & Sciences for having made “a significant impact on the viewing audience concerning vital issues."  The SU2C initiative, which aims to accelerate the pace of cancer research in order to get more effective treatments to patients faster, awarded the first installments of over $70 million worth of three-year grants to a number of interdisciplinary, multi-institutional Dream Teams of researchers in 2009, one year after the initiative’s launch.  This year, on September 10th, the second Stand Up To Cancer televised event aired on all four major networks and over a dozen cable outlets, including HBO, Showtime and Discovery Health.  Over 100 celebrities and musicians donated their time once again to promote the initiative, including Academy Award-winning actors Denzel Washington, Gwyneth Paltrow, George Clooney, Michael Douglas, Sally Field, Renee Zellweger and Kathy Bates as well as Grammy-winning artists Stevie Wonder and Lady Antebellum. Ziskin is a founder of SU2C and a member of its Executive Leadership Committee.