Nanci Ryder, Beloved Hollywood Publicist, Dies at 67

THR Nanci Ryder - Photographed by Brian Bowen Smith - H 2014
Photographed by Brian Bowen Smith

THR Nanci Ryder - H 2014     

She spent 30 years building a career with A-list clients like Renée Zellweger before revealing her ALS diagnosis in 2014. Ever since, she relied on her skills and a committed group of Team Nanci fundraisers to search for a cure.

Nanci Ryder, the beloved Hollywood publicist who co-founded BWR Public Relations, on Thursday lost her courageous six-year battle with ALS. She was 67.

Ryder died peacefully at her home in Los Angeles at 2:24 p.m., CAA partner Bryan Lourd, her longtime friend, said.

Ryder was one of the first power publicists in Hollywood, earning the title long before it was part of the show business lexicon thanks to a no-nonsense approach, enviable client list and an office at BWR where she mentored and groomed some of the industry's top publicists working today.

During her 30-year-plus career, Ryder represented Renée Zellweger, Reese Witherspoon — both of whom received Academy Awards with her guidance — Courteney Cox, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael J. Fox, Jennifer Lopez, Emmy Rossum, Viggo Mortensen, Blake Lively, Don Diamont, Johnny Galecki, Matt LeBlanc, Rose McGowan and Terrence Howard, among dozens of others. 

Clients aside, Ryder may be best remembered for how she faced and fought ALS after receiving a diagnosis in 2014 and for how she rallied supporters in the search for a cure. Close friends, however, will counter that their memories of her center on a wicked sense of humor and reliance on swear words — both delivered with an unmistakable Long Island accent — and a love of soap operas, current events, designer purses, shopping, dog Desi, cats Pants, Thelma and Fluffy and a career that was a decades-long passion.

Her circle became known as Team Nanci, a committed group of industry players numbering in the hundreds that regularly showed up to raise money for the ALS Association Golden West Chapter via annual Walk to Defeat ALS events. Thanks to that support and the inimitable Ryder, they raised raised more than $820,000 in the fight.

Team Nanci consisted of clients-turned-friends led by Zellweger, Cox, Witherspoon and Diamont along with Lourd, Kevin Huvane, Tom and Kathy Maffei, Nick Kiriazis, Tracey Cunningham, Slate PR's Simon Halls and husband Matt Bomer, Viewpoint's Jennifer Allen and Melissa Kates, Jay Schwartz, Lynda Dorf, Brandon Creed, John Chino, Michele and Simon Wise, Michael Chiklis, Justine Bateman and many others, all of whom attended the ALS walks to cheer on Ryder and, later, speak on her behalf when she lost the ability to do so herself.

Other key members of the team included USC's Justin Ichida, a leading stem cell researcher who praised Ryder's crew for aiding advancements while he oversaw a team out for a cure; members of the Golden West chapter, who worked closely in coordinating efforts; doctors Gerald Berke, Merit Cudkowicz, Robert Baloh and Michael Brousseau; and Ryder's round-the-clock live-in nurses, twins Jerome and Jerald.

Team Nanci proved to be an unmistakable and energetic bunch that gathered each fall since 2014, year after year, at L.A.'s Exposition Park, often outfitted in Vera Wang-designed shirts and clutching signs that read "Never Give Up," "Ryder Rocks," "Icon" and, of course, "Team Nanci." After revealing her illness, Ryder operated from the instinctual place of a publicist who knew the impact she could have on raising awareness of ALS by relying on skills she honed during her career, matched with an enviable Rolodex of star clients and powerful friends. The difference was that her new client was a degenerative disease.

Though she had experience as an activist on behalf of such causes and organizations as Humane Animal Rescue Team, Revlon/UCLA Breast Center and Stand Up to Cancer, Ryder might have been the first to say that it took some time to find her footing as a public face of an illness that is cruel, relentless and always fatal. ALS is a neurological disease that causes nerve cells to gradually break down and die. Eventually all muscles are affected, leading to full paralysis while the mind remains active. When Ryder received her diagnosis, she knew the road ahead would be brutal.

She would, however, be the first to say that she had beaten the odds on several occasions, first in building a successful career and becoming the "icon" she was, something she joked about with The Hollywood Reporter while displaying that sharp sense of humor.

Nanci Ryder was born on July 1, 1952, on Long Island, where she stayed until high school graduation. "I was the least likely to succeed," she once said. "I didn't go to college. I got married at 19. I moved out here and had no job, but I found this and loved it. And when you find the right thing, it's amazing. It becomes an addiction."

The cross-country relocation happened in 1979, and shortly after leaving Great Neck for L.A., she landed a job as a talent agent at David Shapira & Associates, where she spent three years before segueing to publicity. Ryder, who divorced husband Paul Ryder, never remarried and had no children, followed with brief tenures at Goldberg-Ehrlich Public Relations and Michael Levine Public Relations.

She formed Nanci Ryder Public Relations in 1984. Fox was her first client, and he recalled the humble times for THR, saying, "She was working out of her apartment with a couple of boxes of files and cleaning up after her dog. Everything I've gone through, I've gone through with Nanci."

Their partnership would last for many years as Fox said Ryder advised and took care of him through his own life-altering illness, Parkinson's disease. "I would do anything for her as a person," he said.

Ryder continued to grow her company alongside up-and-coming publicist Schwartz as she signed a roster that would eventually include Robert Downey Jr., Sarah Jessica Parker, DiCaprio, Helen Hunt, Woody Harrelson, Paul Reiser, Paul Rodriguez and soap star Diamont.

In 1987, she took her clients and partnered with Paul Baker and Larry Winokur to launch Baker Winokur Ryder Public Relations, and BWR grew into one of Hollywood's top PR outfits with corporate, lifestyle, event marketing and brands divisions. At the time of its sale to Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide in October 1999, BWR had annual billings of $8 million as the largest privately owned entertainment and lifestyle PR firm in the U.S. (The firm shuttered in May when it was absorbed by parent company Burson Cohn & Wolfe.) 

Her partners once explained to THR how Ryder impacted the business and their lives. Baker said she became "my younger sister" and someone who was "one of those rare individuals who can light up a room with her charismatic personality and infectious passion for her work." Winokur said, "Nanci lit a fire under us. She's dynamic. She has impeccable taste, great judgment and a great intuition about talent. That has always been her great pleasure: picking someone at a very fledgling state in their career, seeing their potential and guiding that through to fruition. She built a standard of practice for our business that is very hard to exceed."

Ryder's skill, too, during those years was identifying talent and guiding them through the image-making process, often with award-winning results. Her closest relationship in life and work was with Zellweger, whom she signed very early in her career. They were together as the actress became one of Hollywood's top stars with hits like Jerry Maguire (1996), Chicago (2002), Cold Mountain (2003) and the Bridget Jones franchise. During their time together, Zellweger was nominated for consecutive Oscars from 2002-04 for Bridget Jones's Diary, Chicago and Cold Mountain, winning for the last one.

Zellweger picked up her second Academy Award this year for Judy while working with publicists Nicole Perna and Dominique Appel, both of whom rose through the BWR ranks; Perna was Ryder's mentee and onetime assistant.

Zellweger leaned on Ryder and returned the favor in 2000 when the publicist was sidelined with life-threatening breast cancer. She beat it in a year and went into remission with the help of UCLA's Dennis Slamon (who developed the revolutionary breast cancer drug Herceptin), but not before losing her hair and stepping up from behind the scenes — her preferred standing as a publicist — to raise awareness and funds. "Cancer was a breeze," Ryder told THR of that fight. "A breeze! 'You have this disease. This is the treatment. Bye.' "

At "An Unforgettable Evening" fundraiser in February, Zellweger, while receiving the night's highest honor from the Women's Cancer Research Fund, opened up about that time in Ryder's life, recalling how she watched her reluctantly step into the spotlight at the Fire and Ice Ball. "Despite being a seemingly extroverted, vivacious publicist, Nanci shuddered at the thought of public attention and would literally run from having her picture taken," the actress recalled. "Most of the photographs that I have are of Nanci’s hands holding up a magazine or a handbag to cover her face. But when Ryder received an invitation to attend the ball, she accepted and asked her client to come along.

"So, we agreed to meet at her house and drive together. When I arrived, Nanci was struggling with anxiety to make a beautiful new security-blanket wig for the occasion sit straight on her bald head. She was upset and tugging away, and in her signature Long Island drawl complained that she hated the wig and her dress wouldn’t fit because she was puffy from chemo and because she couldn't stop eating cookies."

Just then, Ryder grabbed the wig and threw it across the room and said, "Let’s go," and away they went. “With the effects of her chemo apparent for all to see, she leapt anyway," Zellweger said. "The seemingly smallest moments of defying fear reverberate, and what results can change lives and our history."

No one could have predicted that 14 years later, Ryder would have to make that decision once again when she received the devastating news of an ALS diagnosis, a moment that came in August 2014 after eight months of experiencing puzzling symptoms like slow and slurred speech. She made the difficult move to step down from BWR and deal with her day-to-day health challenges while, at the same time, agreeing again to put on a brave face for all to see. But that time, she shared her story by sitting down with THR for her first interview and photo shoot of any kind. It would be the first of many as she discovered the second chapter of her life's work. 

"They haven't told me that I'm terminal, but the disease is. Eventually," she said in October 2014. "Look, there is Stephen Hawking, and I hear stories about people who have had it for 10 years. You don't know. But if you look it up on the internet, it says 'progressive and terminal.' So you fight. That's it."

Ryder received a diagnosis of bulbar onset motor neuron disease, a prognosis that carried a life expectancy of two to five years, and at the time she benefited from the boost of the viral phenomenon known as the Ice Bucket Challenge, which saw participants dump cold water on themselves as a way to raise awareness and funds for ALS. Zellweger, Cox, Witherspoon and Jeffrey Katzenberg were among those who participated on Ryder's behalf as the global effort eventually raised $115 million for the ALS Association. 

A year after the first interview, THR checked back in with Ryder, who by that point had lost her voice and the ability to swallow and was using a gastrostomy feeding tube connected to her stomach. "I've met my match," she said, communicating using a Boogie Board LCD tablet. "It's real. That makes me sad. When I cry, it's about the dilemma: Do I live like I am 'living' or 'dying'? I don't want to delude myself, so I can't think it's not possible I could die from ALS. But I can't live every day thinking, 'I am dying.' So a few times I have emailed my friends: 'I don't have ALS anymore.' That's when I need a break from being ill. My friends put up with a lot of my nonsense. I have great friends."

It wasn't really nonsense to those who knew her well. Cox told THR that Ryder was her hero. "She's no bullshit. She tells it like it is," she said. "She's funny and really smart. I love people who are true to themselves. When it comes to the big stuff, that's when Nanci really kicks it in. … As new things hit her, like losing the ability to write or to walk, she keeps moving ahead and makes adjustments. I'm in awe of her."

ALS Association Golden West Chapter president and CEO Fred Fisher told THR that Ryder had a significant impact on awareness. "She turned her own personal challenges into an opportunity to inspire support for the thousands and thousands of families facing this devastating disease and to advance the search for effective treatments and cures for ALS," he said. "Her dedication taught all of us how to confront obstacles and keep our eyes firmly focused on making the world a better place. It was a privilege to know her.”

His organization honored Ryder with a Heroes Award in 2016, one of many distinctions she received in recent years. Others included a special tribute at THR's Women in Entertainment breakfast in 2015 and the Presidents Award from the International Cinematographers Guild’s Publicists Awards luncheon in 2017. That ICG distinction meant a lot to her as it was presented by Zellweger, who read Ryder's speech.

“This award means the world to me,” Ryder wrote. “Believe me, the irony is not lost that I am a publicist who made a career out of communicating and I am now receiving the biggest award of my career at a time in my life where I’ve lost the ability to speak. I say 'irony' as to not use another four-letter word. This situation is something I never saw coming, but in a way it’s fitting to sit here now because I never sought out the spotlight and I’ve never been comfortable onstage. I love being behind the scenes, and it’s only been these past couple of years since being diagnosed with ALS that I’ve had a choice to put my reservations aside and do what’s needed to raise money for this disease.”

Survivors include a step-brother, Stanley Schwartz, of Arizona. In lieu of flowers, Team Nanci requests that donations be made to the ALS Association Golden West Chapter at in the hope that Ryder's longtime goal of $1 million can be met. Meanwhile, a celebration of life ceremony will be held once social-gathering restrictions have been eased amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

During several Walk to Defeat ALS events, Lourd described how fundraising for a cure became Ryder's ultimate mission in life and why she was so good at it. "We all marvel at the inner strength she’s found," he explained. "She's impossible to deny. She won't let people look the other way."

In addition to public appearances — her final one being the ALS walk in November — Ryder filled her final years with activities that brought her joy: spending time with Team Nanci members like the Maffeis, Kiriazis and Lourd, taking frequent trips to the zoo, bird-watching in her backyard with Jerome and Jerald, keeping up with her soaps and staying up-to-date on the news on CNN, even if the recent state of politics made her skin boil, she once joked to THR. One memorable moment was a visit to a local fire station to meet firefighters and their dog while posing for pictures on a fire engine.

Though she learned to love the everyday aspects of a normal life outside the buzz of Hollywood, even after she stepped down from BWR into her new reality living with ALS, Ryder was never able to remove her publicist's hat. She often ended interviews with THR trying to control the narrative and push the focus away from the darkness of ALS.

"The story should be about being grateful," she said. "I'm grateful. It could be worse. I've had a great life."