Tom Sherak, Former Academy President, Dies at 68

Governors Awards | Hollywood, Nov. 12

In his opening speech, Tom Sherak singled out the passing of Oscar producers Laura Ziskin and Gil Cates. "To us," he said, "they were family."

UPDATED: The popular studio executive drew on his Hollywood connections to raise more than $45 million for multiple sclerosis research and programs.

Tom Sherak, the charismatic and charitable studio marketing and distribution executive who recently took the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences through some tumultuous times, has died. He was 68.

Sherak, who had a long career at 20th Century Fox and then Revolution Studios before serving three consecutive one-year terms as president of the Academy through August 2012, died Tuesday at his home in Calabasas, Calif. He was “surrounded by his family giving him hugs, kisses, and love,” his family said in a statement.

Sherak had battled prostate cancer for a dozen years and recently required hospice care.

“Tom is, was and always will be, our loving husband, daddy, papa, brother, friend and ‘Go to Guy,’" the family said. “He blessed this earth for 68 incredible years, and he will be missed every single day.”

Sherak was named Los Angeles film czar by new mayor Eric Garcetti in September, charged with boosting film and TV production in the city. He also was serving as a trusted adviser to Oscar-nominated American Hustle and Her producer Megan Ellison and to her producing brother, David (World War Z).

Among the most well-liked executives in Hollywood, Sherak spent two decades as chairman of the annual MS Dinner of Champions, hosting his final event in September 2012. In March, he was to receive one of the movie industry’s most prestigious honors, the 2014 Pioneer of the Year award, at a dinner in Las Vegas during CinemaCon. Two weeks later, he was to participate in a ceremony honoring him with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Sherak spent 17 years at Fox, the last three as chairman of its domestic film group, until he left in September 2000 to become an equity partner in Revolution, then a new venture from producer Joe Roth, a Fox former studio chief.

At Fox, Sherak was responsible for the rollout of such high-profile films as Titanic, Die Hard, Alien, There’s Something About Mary, Wall Street, Speed, Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace and Independence Day.

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“Tom was a mentor to me and a good friend for almost three decades,” said Titanic director James Cameron. “He embodied the heart and soul of movies -- entertainment and showmanship -- timeless values in our business. There was always a sparkle in his eye when it was time to release a film, and you knew that it was going to be a grand adventure playing out on a global stage. I will miss his spirit, his sense of fun, his love of cinema -- but most of all, his friendship.”

Under Roth and Sherak, Revolution released more than 30 features through a multiyear deal with Sony before it shuttered its film operation in October 2007. Those included America’s Sweethearts, Black Hawk Down, XXX, Anger Management, Daddy Day Care, Hellboy, Are We There Yet? and Rocky Balboa.

The Brooklyn-born Sherak, who also served as treasurer of the Academy and on its board of governors, was elected to succeed Sid Ganis as president of AMPAS in 2009.

He was instrumental in the Academy’s move the next year to expand the number of best picture nominees from five to as many as 10.

Near the end of his final term, Sherak helped the Academy forge agreements to keep the Oscars airing on ABC through 2020 and the awards ceremony in the newly named Dolby Theater at Hollywood & Highland for another 20 years. And in October 2011, the Academy partnered with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to develop its long-gestating film museum in Los Angeles at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.

“In the more than 30 years I’ve known Tom, his passionate support of and excitement about the motion picture business, the Academy, his family and friends never wavered,” Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said. “He was truly larger than life, and he will be missed.”

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Sherak, who first joined the Executives Branch of the Academy in 1983, also helped navigate the sticky situation before the 2012 Oscars when producer Brett Ratner and then host Eddie Murphy resigned three months before the show in the wake of Ratner’s offensive remarks about gays. Brian Grazer came on to produce with Don Mischer, with Billy Crystal later agreeing to host.

While heading up the Academy, he also served as a consultant for Marvel Studios and Relativity Media.

“Tom Sherak was a true visionary and a leader to us all,” Relativity CEO Ryan Kavanaugh and president Tucker Tooley said in a statement. “We are honored to be able to call him a mentor and a friend.”

Always quick with a quip, the genial Sherak helped raise more than $45 million for multiple sclerosis research and programs during his two decades as chairman of the annual MS Dinner of Champions. He helped draw donations by enlisting as honorees such Hollywood heavyweights as Roth, Howard Stringer, Peter Chernin and Harvey Weinstein.

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Sherak volunteered to chair this event starting in 1993 “because my daughter Melissa was diagnosed when she was 15 years old,” he said in 2008. “It was heartbreaking. As a family, we needed to do something and we decided to help find a cure, which led us to the MS Society. Then we realized not only did we need to find a cure, but we needed to help people who suffer from the disease who couldn’t help themselves.”

Said Bill Mechanic, who headed Fox Filmed Entertainment when Sherak was with the company:

“Tom was a very good executive but a better man," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "In the selfish world of Hollywood, he existed to help others. Whether it was raising money for MS or leading the Academy, he always tried to do the right thing. If the idea is to leave the world a better place for having been there, then he now rests in the pantheon of human beings.”

Sherak also served as chairman of the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation and was on the board of directors for the Motion Picture and Television Fund and Southern California Variety — The Children’s Charity.

“Tom lived his life as an open book," his family noted. "He opened his heart and let the world in, and anyone who was lucky enough to know him knew first hand the power of his love. He gave everything he had to help others, regardless of whether or not he knew them. Tom is a true hero in our lives who has a star on the sidewalk and wings to fly.”

Sherak earned a degree in marketing at New York City Community College, got a job on Wall Street and then began his show business career in 1970 at Paramount, where he worked in distribution offices in New York, Washington and St. Louis.

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He spent six years at General Cinema, then the largest exhibitor in the world, rising to vp and head film buyer before moving to Fox in 1983 to become its president of marketing and distribution. 

Titanic producer Jon Landau, then a Fox executive, worked alongside Sherak when the studio was pitching George Lucas to get distribution rights to the second trilogy of Star Wars movies.

“Tom actually did a spoof with me that we called, ‘Episode VII -- The Distribution Wars,’” Landau recalled. "He played Luke Skywalker. It was his way of showing George and everyone at Lucasfilm how much it meant. We made a five-minute short. There was a voice like Obi-Wan Kenobi, and it said, ‘Tom, do you think you’re going to be able to do this?' He said, ‘It’ll be as easy as opening Home Alone.’ That was showmanship.”

Sherak once noted that he survived 10 regime changes at Fox. Asked by the Los Angeles Times in 2009 to divulge the secret of his corporate longevity, he replied: “Honesty. Honesty. Honesty. You’ve got to be honest. You also have to have an opinion. It doesn't matter if it’s the only opinion in the room. You just need an opinion, and you need to be able to support the final decision.”

In addition to Melissa, survivors include his wife of more than 45 years, Madeleine, another daughter, Barbara, and son William.

Kim Masters contributed to this report.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4