Tom Sherak: Hollywood Remembers the Former Fox Executive and Academy President
This story first appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Bruce Davis: Former executive director, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Tom really blossomed in being Academy president. The night of the election in 2009, I don't think he was expecting to be chosen. He and outgoing president Sid Ganis both came from marketing backgrounds, and he thought the board might want a change. When he started, he was too deferential and gradually became presidential in the best sense of the word. Nobody I worked with in all the years I was there loved being Academy president as much as Tom. He loved the headaches and controversies because they gave him things to fix. He was an instinctive diplomat.
Tom was head of distribution when I was brought aboard at 20th Century Fox. I only stayed at Fox a year before I left to start Castle Rock Entertainment -- it was a blip in my life -- but we became friends. I was very struck by his optimism and goodness. I respond to people who are internally good. During my years at Castle Rock and then at Warner Bros., we really had no business connection, so the friendship was sustained only by our keeping in touch with each other. He used to like to remarry [his wife] Madeleine, and I always got a kick out of it. I don't remember whether it was the second or third time, but they got remarried at our house. It had to be the late 1980s. It was very sweet. Tom was Jewish -- I'm not -- and they did the whole chuppah, smash-the-glass thing. They had an extraordinary marriage. There was another time that they renewed their vows at a hotel. Through the years, we had many lunches together at the Palm Restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard, and I went to the weddings of his children.
As was pointed out during the memorial service, he was a guy who would reach out and want to help, whatever happened to be going on. I wasn't a guy who needed a lot of help, but I just loved him. And when he wanted to make a point -- I always got a kick out of this -- he would say your name twice, "Alan, Alan," and give you that fixed look with those bright blue eyes. If we could divide the world roughly into givers and takers, he was a giver. I knew I was in the presence of a very special person.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs: President, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Tom was exuberant, always up, always pulling people in, friendly, jovial, comforting -- all those good words. When I was elected president, all his advice was very positive. "The most important thing," he told me, "is have a good time. Have a wonderful time. It's a great position. You should make the most of it. You're not going to believe how much fun it is going to be." I'm sad, obviously, because we've lost someone near and dear to us in this industry, but on the other hand, what a wonderful life. He was kind of a candle, if you will, bright, lighting up the space.
Dawn Hudson: CEO, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Tom once spoke at UCLA and found that the students knew very little about the Academy. He made it his mission to introduce it to young filmmakers everywhere, even recruiting [former president] Sid Ganis to go on a college tour. In December, we had a meeting about the new museum, which had no bigger champion than Tom. He'd been through a lot of chemo, couldn't feel his feet and his back hurt. But by God, he was at that meeting. He had such capacity for enthusiasm and love. There was no part of life he didn't relish -- especially the role of Academy president. He said, "This is the greatest job on earth and one I would pay to do. But don't tell anybody."
Dr. Gary Gitnick: Professor of medicine, UCLA
Tom endured a lot of medical care, but he always managed to stay upbeat.
Not long after the mayor appointed him to the job of film czar [in late September], we had him in the hospital at UCLA. He motioned me over to his bed and said, "I want you to make a big sign and take it outside: Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center -- Hospital to the Czar."
It says something about someone's character when they can keep their sense of humor during cancer treatments.
Erik Lomis: President of theatrical distribution, The Weinstein Co.
I first met Tom in the mid 1970s in Philadelphia. My dad was a film buyer at the time for Budco, which was later bought by AMC. Tom was a buyer for General Cinema. I must have been 13 or 14, and we met at a motion picture club outing during a softball game. We got to be friendly, and he used to pick me up in the mornings and take me golfing. I think he was 26 or 27. Then, when Tom moved to Los Angeles and went to Fox, we remained close. I came to L.A. in 1991 to work for United Artists Theaters and went to MGM in 1993. Whenever I needed career advice, Tom was the guy I talked to. He had a great sense of humor and loved practical jokes. Once, when I was an exhibitor, I went to Fox, and he recruited his guys, including Bruce Snyder, to be nasty toward me. In the meeting, Bruce and a colleague kept insulting me. After 15 minutes, I finally, said, "F-- you, what is your problem?" Tom burst into the room -- he'd been hiding in a closet -- blew a whistle and was dressed as a referee with the striped shirt and hat. He said, "I can't believe you lasted that long, I was dying in there." He made life, and work, fun. I loved him and will miss him.
Jon Landau: Producer
We were in the dog days of postproduction on Titanic. There were many people [at Fox] who felt it should come out at the end of summer. Tom was the one who led the studio to believe that Christmas was the best time for the movie. His argument was, the 10 days of that period are the busiest of the year, busier than summer. He said the movie could play forever because nothing was behind it. It made a big difference in the quality of the movie that Jim [Cameron] was able to deliver. He took that on and championed it.
Then I got to know him better when I was [an executive at Fox]. I took a studio job so I could learn how a studio works. He loved taking people who were eager to learn under his wing. It is amazing to me, since his passing, how many people have cited Tom as their mentor. There weren't enough hours for any human being to mentor that many people! Often in Hollywood, when you're talking to someone, he is looking over your shoulder to see "who else" is in the room. Tom was talking only to you.
Mark Johnson: Producer
Technically, Tom and I were related. His son is married to a cousin of mine, which he would mention at foreign-language committee events to people who knew us and often to people who didn't know who he was or I was. This seemed to amuse him quite a bit. He came into the Academy president job following a number of people who held other jobs at the same time. He could devote more time and energy to being president and did. You saw that pay off with the ABC renegotiations. Tom put a lot of effort into that -- and it showed.
Rob Friedman: Co-chairman Lionsgate Motion Picture Group
Friend, competitor, role model. These are all words I would use to describe Tom. Whether it was as friendly competitors on behalf of our respective studios or partners in the Titanic wars, it was always about solving the problems, not creating them. As vice chairman at Paramount during the Titanic days, I was on the front line with Fox in taking their conceived baby and birthing it after the forced marriage. Tom and I had many spirited yet productive debates about virtually every aspect of bringing the film out into the world for all the public to see. In the end we all won, and our friendship grew and we remained friends for years to come.
The last time we officially worked together was as Academy colleagues, with myself as a governor and Tom as our president. It was an incredible learning experience watching him work his magic firsthand, whether it was concluding our negotiation with ABC for the extension of the Oscar broadcast deal or transitioning the Academy through new management. It was about getting it done in a great and positive way. I never met anyone like him. He was always there to help and never too busy for anyone. His memory will continue to foster good deeds and a "pay it forward" attitude in all who knew him.
Ryan Kavanaugh: Founder and CEO, Relativity Media, and former Sherak student at UCLA
I remember when one of the first negative news articles came out about Relativity. It talked about whatever the "rumor du jour" was at the time. I called Tom, and he said that in his entire history in the business, he'd never seen anything new work that didn't first disrupt and anger the old-guard Hollywood establishment. Tom told me that if everything did go "to hell in a handbasket," he'd come over to join Relativity and bring six people with him to move our company forward. He was always there for me.