Why a Super Producer Kept Her Cancer Battle Secret From Hollywood
Eleni Kalorkoti

Why a Super Producer Kept Her Cancer Battle Secret From Hollywood

by Tatiana Siegel
December 07, 2018, 6:30am PST

When 'Hunger Games' and 'Rogue One' producer Alli Shearmur succumbed to cancer this year, colleagues were stunned. Like many in Hollywood battling the disease, she hid her illness from an industry where sickness is too often equated with weakness.

ICM Partners' Joanne Wiles was at the Sundance Film Festival when she received the news about producer Allison Shearmur, a friend she first met at summer camp when they were teenagers — and the reason she pursued a career in Hollywood.

"One of my colleagues texted me, 'Did you know Alli Shearmur died?'" she recalls. "I literally got so upset and angry with him. I was like, 'That cannot be true.'"

Like many friends and colleagues, Wiles had no idea that Shearmur had been battling lung cancer for the past two and a half years and was terminally ill. On Jan. 19, the successful producer whose credits included the Hunger Games films, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Disney's live-action Cinderella had succumbed to the disease at the age of 54.

Nearly everyone who knew Shearmur was stunned by the news because she kept her struggle private, spending half of the final year of her life in London, producing Solo: A Star Wars Story. According to those close to her, she was in remission and was cleared by doctors to work. Husband and film and TV composer Edward Shearmur stayed behind in Los Angeles with their two teenage children. Then she returned home when the cancer came back, telling almost no one about her grave prognosis.

Wiles last received a text from Shearmur in late October wishing the agent a happy birthday. "Our birthdays are one day apart, and I stupidly forgot to text her just because life got in the way," she says, her voice trailing off.

Shearmur's story isn't unique. In the U.S., one in three people will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetimes. Approximately 1.7 million people stateside will be diagnosed with the disease in 2018. Each day, about 1,670 people in the U.S. die from the disease, approximately one per minute (Hollywood advocacy group Stand Up to Cancer does not break out statistics on how the disease affects members of the entertainment community specifically).

When it comes to acknowledging the force of cancer, there's a spectrum of approaches, from Katie Couric — who lost a husband and a sister to the disease — doing an on-air colonoscopy to former Paramount chief Brad Grey, who kept his lung cancer diagnosis hidden from nearly all friends and business associates. Ironically, Grey, who once tapped Shearmur to be co-president of production at Paramount, died eight months before his onetime acolyte, at the age of 59, after the cancer had spread to his brain.

"I think she didn't want anyone to feel sorry for her. The minute you tell someone that you're ill or something bad happened, they look at you differently, and I think Alli Brecker didn't want that," says Wiles, using Shearmur's maiden name.

Psychologist Larry Shaw, who did not treat Shearmur but whose patient list includes many industry executives and producers, says Hollywood is not a welcoming place for illness, particularly for women. Even pregnancies are often hidden. Anecdotes abound. One high-powered talent lawyer says she never let clients know that she was pregnant, while an A-list star is said to have fired her agent when the rep was pregnant.

"A cancer diagnosis is the ultimate vulnerability," he says.

The fear of being passed over for the next big gig is legitimate. As a result, secrecy reigns. In fact, a female patient once made Shaw put his cellphone in an outside room before discussing her illness, lest it inadvertently record.

"As soon as you let people on the set or the suits know, then the wheels start turning because it's always the bottom line and it's money and, 'Will she be able to perform and will she be able to do this?' If you let it leak out anywhere, even to your best friend, it leaks out to their best friend or their partner or their husband or their wife, and then it just kind of cascades and all of a sudden it's being talked about at the Ivy," says Shaw. "[Keeping a diagnosis secret] is the one thing they have control over, because they don't have control over the cancer."

Whether or not it's best to go public, he says, depends. "If it's advanced cancer, that's one thing. If it's a mastectomy and the prognosis is good, that's another thing," Shaw explains. "Either way, going public in this day and age ultimately protects you if you get fired. You would have recourse."

In recent years, more Hollywood women have opted for candor when it comes to battling cancer. Spider-Man producer Laura Ziskin became an outspoken activist. In 2008, while battling breast cancer, she formed Stand Up to Cancer alongside Couric, Sherry Lansing, and Ellen Ziffren.

"She really was mad as hell that the prognosis she got was no better than had it been 40 years ago," says Pamela Oas Williams, who was Ziskin's producing partner and is now a member of the SU2C Council of Founders and Advisors. "She really wanted to understand why we weren't winning the war on cancer and to use the bully pulpit of the media to get that word out and to understand the epidemic and to demand an answer for where we're at."

In 2017, Julia Louis-Dreyfus revealed that she was battling breast cancer. Similarly, Kathy Bates opened up in 2012 about facing a breast cancer diagnosis and undergoing a double mastectomy. Nearly a decade earlier, Bates beat Stage 1 ovarian cancer but had kept that battle private. "I didn't tell anybody," Bates said of her first bout. "I continued to work right after the operation. My agent at the time was very old-school and didn't want me to be the poster child for ovarian cancer."

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson talked openly to THR last year about beating cancer twice — first colon and then breast. "The first time didn't change my perspective," she told THR of the life-and-death battles. "The second time, I changed everything. I went through all the treatments. I did chemotherapy. I lost hair. I did the mastectomy. And then I changed my diet, my world, my art."

But not everyone is willing to go public. Filmmaker Nora Ephron kept her illness secret (she died in 2012 as a result of acute myeloid leukemia, catching much of the industry by surprise). Shearmur also kept her struggles private.

And outside of family, only a handful of friends knew Shearmur was sick, including CAA's Risa Gertner, producer Michael Besman (About Schmidt) and directors David Fincher and Gary Ross.

"I was devastated. It seemed impossible. Alli was so alive that she still feels alive to me," says Ross. "Alli was constantly passionate. Endlessly enthusiastic. She had a great sense of humor, and it was almost like she was trying to squeeze every drop out of every interaction: 'How are you?' She would emphasize the word like the simple question wasn't enough. She wanted to get to the guts of it. She loved being around creative people. We could all feel that, and it was empowering."

Fincher, who had formed a strong bond with Shearmur on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Zodiac, gave the eulogy at her memorial held Jan. 22 at Temple Israel of Hollywood. He recounted their calls and how she called everyone "cookie." Given that Shearmur was a top-tier producer, her memorial drew Donna Langley, Stacey Snider, Alan Horn and Jon Feltheimer. At Shearmur's behest, an afterparty was held at Tower Bar, which was her favorite spot in town.

One producer who was at the service noted months later that the fact that Solo was such a misfire — earning just $393 million worldwide off of a $300 million production cost and seeing directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller replaced by Ron Howard — only made Shearmur's death more tragic. It was on the Solo set that the cancer — first diagnosed in 2015 on the London set of Rogue One — finally caught up with the producer. Many crewmembers thought she was suffering from a cold. In July, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy sent Shearmur back to Los Angeles and helped her get admitted into an experimental program at UCLA, according to insiders. Kennedy declined to comment.

But Shearmur was tiny, weighing 90 pounds when healthy (she was a quadruplet who appeared in Beech-Nut ads as a baby). The tumor on her lung had spread to her esophagus, and she couldn't keep any food down. The doctors believed that if they operated on the tumor, she would lose the ability to talk or eat. Still, she continued to be a mentor, reading a former assistant's script and providing notes even during her final weeks.

"She was exceptionally driven. Alli didn't want to ever not be on it, that's who she was, she was also that girl at U Penn who was a literature major and was always reading very advanced authors' work that I could barely get through," says Wiles, a Wharton grad. "She was that girl — pushing the boundaries. I guess it's fitting that she would fight that way to keep normalcy and to be exceptional all the way to the end."

Six weeks before she died, Shearmur made one last appearance at The Hollywood Reporter's 2017 Women in Entertainment Power 100 breakfast. It was an important milestone for Shearmur, who made the list for the third time. One fellow producer who had come of age in Hollywood with Shearmur thought she looked more frail than usual but chalked it up to the stresses of working on a tumultuous Star Wars movie.

Days before, Shearmur did a final interview with THR. Only she knew how prophetic the last question was: How would you spend an extra day?

"I would sit by the ocean in Kauai, with my husband, watching my kids surf," she said. "And be fearless."

This story first appeared in the 2018 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.