Class act

Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award honoree Sherry Lansing has spent a career successfully juggling the professional and the philanthropic.

She was the first teacher from South Los Angeles ever to become a movie executive, the first female movie executive ever to become a studio head and the first studio head ever to walk away from her job to become a full-time philanthropist.

If outsiders were stunned when Sherry Lansing left her post as chairman of Paramount Pictures in 2005 to set up a charitable organization, the Sherry Lansing Foundation, that might be because they had forgotten just how much she had already done for others along the way.

A regent of the University of California who chairs its health-services committee and a member of the boards of some enormously important charities, Lansing for years juggled her compassionate concerns with her professional ones, certainly in the quarter-century since 1980, when she became the first woman named president of 20th Century Fox and was thereby inducted into Hollywood history.

Her involvement includes serving on the executive committee of the boards of Friends of Cancer Research and the Lasker Foundation; serving as a trustee of the American Association for Cancer Research; and working actively on behalf of the American Red Cross, the Carter Center and Stop Cancer, a nonprofit group she co-founded with the late Armand Hammer.

Now, through her foundation, she is focusing on the areas that concern her most: education, health care and cancer research.

"I lost my mother to cancer when I was 40," she notes. "Throughout my life, I have been a passionate advocate of cancer research." Indeed, Lansing serves as the cancer representative on the oversight committee that decides how to distribute the $3 billion California has advocated for stem-cell research.

Lansing's philanthropic endeavors also include being a trustee of the University of Chicago and spearheading a new plan to get retired men and women to work voluntarily in the school system.

This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is recognizing Lansing's contributions with its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award -- and few Hollywood insiders have deserved it more.

"Sherry is being honored not only for her passionate work in support of fighting cancer," Academy president Sid Ganis said in announcing the award, "but because the board recognized and remembered the long list of charitable organizations and causes she has served. ... She has never failed to devote her enormous energy to the needs of others."

It was Lansing's mother, a Jewish woman who fled the Nazis during World War II, who pushed her to help others.

"My mother was born in Mainz, Germany, and she was educated there and wore the yellow star," Lansing explains. "And, for whatever reasons, her family was smart enough to know she should get out. So, she got on a train with nothing and eventually got on a boat and came to Chicago, where she had an uncle. She was 17 years old and didn't speak any English and got a job selling dresses.

"She was remarkable," Lansing continues. "She was a person who throughout her life had that attitude of, 'We're lucky that we survived' and was always making the best of things."

Lansing's mother needed to do that when her husband died of a heart attack -- something that today would have been handled with a simple angioplasty, the very kind of operation Lansing has helped support for others. Lansing was 9 years old, her mother only 32.

"I remember her crying, and I remember that two gentlemen came to the hospital -- I will never forget this as it left a great imprint on my life -- and said, 'We're going to take care of the business and run it for you, and you'll be OK,'" Lansing recalls. "And she said, 'No, you're not. You're going to teach me to run it.'

And she took over my dad's (commercial real estate) business. We would go to collect the rent, and that's how we lived. I saw her doing this and running this business and that was, without a doubt, my first role model."

It was inevitable, with a role model like that, that Lansing would expect nothing less for women than for men -- both when she took the job at Fox and when she became chairman of Paramount.

Her love of movies came early, while a student at a Chicago high school for gifted students, when she attended regular double bills of films that included 1954's "Sabrina" and 1959's "Imitation of Life." Initially, she thought she'd be an actress, and after earning a degree at Northwestern University, she and her first husband -- she was married at age 20 -- headed west.

"The day I graduated, we packed all of our stuff in the back of a teeny car and drove cross-country so he could become a doctor, and I could become an actress," Lansing remembers. "I started pounding the street and working as a (model and) substitute teacher."

It would be wrong to interpret Lansing's three-and-a-half years of teaching as a diversion from her true love. Education was as important to her then as it is now.

"I went into Watts and East L.A. -- I taught at literally all of the schools there," she notes. "The first thing I wanted was to be an actress, but teaching was my second love. I'd wanted to be a social worker, so I wanted to go into underprivileged areas and into Watts and East L.A. It was right after the Watts riots, and I can't tell you it was safe. At one school, Manual Arts, they started beating up on a kid, and I tried to stop it and went to the principal's office and they (had just thrown) a Molotov cocktail in his room!

"I really believe in the potential of public schools to do good," she adds. "Having said that, it was a challenge."

So, it turned out, was acting. While Lansing got breaks early -- most notably in Howard Hawks' 1970 Western "Rio Lobo" -- to her surprise, she discovered she didn't like the work.

After splitting up with her husband when she was in her mid-20s, "I went into therapy, which was one of the best things I did for myself," she says, "and I let go of acting, realizing this wasn't what I wanted. That's when I started to find my own identity, deal with my demons. I had the normal lack of self-esteem that a woman had at that time; I was told that the only career suitable for me was as a teacher or a nurse. Those are great careers, but you didn't go, 'Gee, I think I'd like to produce movies or run a studio.' In fact, I said, 'There will never be a woman studio chief in my lifetime.'"

Nor would there be for the next decade. But when Lansing started working behind the scenes, initially as a freelance reader then as a studio executive, she moved with impressive speed -- and then one day, Fox chairman Alan Hirschfield asked her to become president of the studio.

Lansing had already made a mark as an executive, supervising such 1979 films as "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "The China Syndrome." She had bristled somewhat when her previous boss at Columbia Pictures hadn't promoted her to the presidency on the grounds that no man would accept a woman as his superior. But in 1980, she was indeed a studio president, and it made headlines across the globe.

Asked if she felt added pressure, Lansing says, "Not consciously. I felt overwhelmed by the work. I had a job to do, and it required 24 hours a day and seven days a week, and the only way to deal with this was to put my head down and do it."

At Fox, Lansing was involved with pictures such as 1980's "Nine to Five," 1981's "Chariots of Fire" and 1982's "The Verdict." But her tenure was clouded by a divided responsibility. Unlike studio presidents today, she had no authority over marketing and failed to see eye-to-eye with the studio's then-marketing chief. When he refused to back her wish to buy domestic as well as foreign rights to the small British film "Chariots of Fire," and when he didn't promote the 1983 Martin Scorsese movie "The King of Comedy" in the way she felt it deserved, feeling stymied, she exited her post that year.

Most executives who leave top studio jobs go into a slow, Gen. MacArthur-like decline. But Lansing was different. Teaming with "Kramer" producer Stanley Jaffe and relocating to Paramount, she embarked on a new career as a producer, with astonishing success. Among her credits were milestone movies like 1987's "Fatal Attraction" and Oscar winners like 1988's "The Accused."

With Jaffe based on the East Coast and Lansing on the West, the two took a novel approach to their partnership.

"We used to develop (material) separately," Lansing explains. "We would talk about something, and then, if one was passionate, that person would develop it, and when we got a script we were satisfied with, we would show it to the other and make it together."

In the films Lansing and Jaffe produced, a theme emerged that held true throughout many of the pictures Lansing oversaw during her tenure -- from 1995's "Braveheart" to 1996's "The First Wives Club" to 1999's "Double Jeopardy."

"There is a continual theme in these movies: Your actions have consequences," she says. "With Michael Douglas in 'Fatal Attraction,' it's that you can't just go in and have a one-night stand. That's also true of (1993's) 'Indecent Proposal' and the female-empowerment movies" -- a genre of films that frequently centered on women in jeopardy that Lansing almost created while at Paramount.

Lansing returned to the executive suites as chairman of Paramount's movie division in 1992. It was the beginning of a 13-year run in which her reputation grew, and the industry's fondness for her blossomed, until Lansing was regarded universally as the most powerful and probably the best-liked woman in the business.

Running a studio and producing one's own films were quite different, she found.

"What's wonderful as a producer is that you don't have to make a slate of films; you make films that you're passionate about. As an executive, you need teenage films, young male films, female-audience films -- a whole breadth."

That breadth included such Paramount releases as 1994's "Forrest Gump," 1997's "Titanic" (a movie she shrewdly bought into when Fox was dealing with budget overruns), 1998's "Saving Private Ryan" and 2002's "The Hours."

But just as memorable as Lansing's films was her style. Despite the inevitable conflicts of the job, she maintained a warmth and decency that transcended many of her peers. If she was occasionally criticized for cautiousness and for not wishing to be the bearer of bad news, she was never criticized for a lack of humanity.

It is this humanity that she is now bringing to her new role, the "third chapter" of her life, as she calls it. She speaks with enormous enthusiasm of her work on a range of issues, of her advocacy for stem-cell research, of her new initiative, Prime Time, to help seniors be active as educational volunteers. This isn't a woman who dabbles but one who throws her entire being into her work -- and relishes it.

"I'm busier than I have ever been," she admits. "This is the payoff for all those years of hard work. It's a wonderful opportunity to give back in the areas that are my passion."
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