Sherry Lansing was expecting the worst when she came home late one night to learn that Motion Picture Academy president Sid Ganis had left several urgent phone messages instructing her to call back “whatever time you get in.” “I immediately thought Sidney was sick,” the former chairman of Paramount-turned-tireless cancer research advocate explains. “That’s the kind of calls I get because of the work I’m doing with my foundation now.”
When the two old friends finally connected, Ganis assured Lansing he wasn’t ill. “He started to laugh and said, ‘The Academy voted and we want to give you this award and we need to know if you’ll accept it because we want to go out with the press release early tomorrow morning,’ ” Lansing recalls. “I said, ‘Oh my God!’ I started to shake and I started to cry. Then I said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you how honored I am and I’m glad you’re OK!’ ”
Since leaving the business in 2005, this year’s recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award says she’s “busier than ever,” having jumped headfirst into her new career as a philanthropist. Lansing, 62, founded and chairs the Sherry Lansing Foundation, which focuses on cancer research, health and education projects. She also sits on numerous boards including the National Institutes of Health, the American Red Cross and Stop Cancer, which she co-founded with Dr. Armand Hammer.
“This is a woman who focuses on what she’s doing with great intensity and understanding,” says Ganis. “Part of why she’s been so effective in the work she’s doing now is because she knows everyone and can go to them on a personal level. Sherry deeply believes in the causes she’s involved with and people really respond to that. Then she puts on that smile and no one can say ‘no’ to her.”
Of switching careers into what she calls the “third chapter” of her life, Lansing explains: “For years, when people would ask me, ‘How do you see your future?’ I always said when I was 60 — if I was lucky enough to achieve all my dreams — that I wanted to leave the movie business and start a foundation dedicated to cancer research.”
Her commitment to fight the disease is a deeply personal one. She lost her 64-year-old mother to ovarian cancer. “My mother was 62 when she got cancer,” she recalls. “I never thought of it before, but that must be why I chose 60. I’m almost the same age and I feel so young. They say 60 is the new 40. I say 60 is the new 60. This is what it’s like — it’s the best time of your life.”
Longtime pal Carole Black, whose decision to leave Lifetime coincided with Lansing’s planned departure from Paramount, describes her friend as “the real deal” and says the former film executive has always been a big believer in giving back.
“She could just take it easy, but she’s so vitally interested in everything she’s doing from cancer research to stem cell funding — she’s been a major driver in that,” Black notes. “Sherry is someone who is willing to help in any way she can to make things better.”
While Lansing peppers her conversation about feeling “more authentic” since deciding to spend her working life with scientists instead of studio execs, she good-naturedly shakes off the notion of being canonized for her decision. “I’m not Mother Theresa,” she says. “I wanted a life. I didn’t just leave (the business) to do good, I left to do good for myself.
“For 12 years (at Paramount), work mostly had to come first. Now I can travel. I spent a month in Munich where my husband (William Friedkin) was directing an opera. I spent a month in Italy. I’m spending quality time with my husband, my boys (stepsons Jack and Cedric) and my friends, and I even get to just sit and think sometimes. It’s the payoff for all those years.”
Working her way up from script reader to become the first woman to head a major studio, Lansing never set out to become an industry legend, but her achievements read otherwise. In 1980, when the Chicago native was named president of 20th Century Fox, the New York Times trumpeted the announcement with the headline: “Former Model Named Head of Fox Productions,” which she had decried in previous interviews as sexist.
“I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, but it was like a bomb went off,” she says now of the media explosion. “I never felt like a trailblazer.”
But her fate as an icon of female empowerment was sealed. Lansing’s track record of greenlighting pictures featuring strong women — including box office successes “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Fatal Attraction” and “The Accused” — telegraphed an unmistakable message to Hollywood and popular culture. “These women were not victims — they fought back. I believed in that message and still do,” she says.
One of her chief role models was her mother, Margo Heimann, who fled Nazi Germany when she was 17 and arrived in America speaking no English. She would eventually find work selling dresses. When Lansing’s father, real estate investor David Duhl, died when Sherry was only 9 years old, her mother learned the business. “She never pitied herself,” Lansing said in a previous interview, “and she always looked for the positive and kept going.”
Lansing’s penchant for outspoken, feminist material was in stark contrast to her widely acknowledged gracious and collaborative management style dealing with powerbrokers and talent alike. “Every time we had lunch on the lot, Sherry knew everyone — even the servers,” Black says. “She was just ‘Sherry.’
“I wanted to do an ‘Intimate Portrait’ on her (for Lifetime). We didn’t do many executives, but I thought she was a terrific role model for women. It took awhile, but I finally convinced her to do it.”
Then Black heard from her producers that there was a problem.
“I couldn’t imagine what it was,” Black says. “I asked if they were having a hard time getting people to talk. It turns out there were too many. Everyone was calling saying, ‘She changed my life. I want to be involved.’ I can’t tell you how unusual that is.”
Lansing’s noncontentious management style, which she has described as “nurturing,” translated well into her new career. “Being a studio executive was the best training ground around,” she explains. “You learn to bring people together to achieve a common goal. You learn how to listen, and hopefully you learn how to control your emotions and be rational.
“I’m not the boss — I’m on these boards with these Nobel Prize-winning scientists — but I want to get my voice heard. You learn in the movie business how to make everybody happy and think it was their idea.”
She says the most important lesson she’s carried over from her previous life is to let other people take credit. “That’s a studio executive’s trait or at least I think it should be — that the filmmakers make the films and the scientists do the science and all we want to do is help. It’s like greenlighting a movie. It’s like, ‘Go make your movie.’ Scientists go do the science that will hopefully lead to some remarkable breakthrough.”
Recently, Lansing has opted to expand her philanthropic efforts by spearheading a new “experimental” movement she’s dubbed “Prime Time,” which endeavors to entice 60-plus retirees into doing “a different kind” of volunteer work.
“There will soon be 80 million baby boomers, and they’re younger, hipper, wealthier and healthier than they’ve ever been,” she says. “They’re a huge asset that’s just sitting there.”
The one-time high school math teacher is testing the waters with a pilot volunteer program in 10 Los Angeles schools. “Some of them will teach, some can work in after-school programs,” she explains. “It all makes a difference. It enriches your life to think about something other than yourself.”
Lansing is also on a mission to spread the word that effective philanthropy doesn’t necessarily require deep pockets. “I do not think this is about money,” she stresses. “It’s about time, intelligence and vision. If you can think of a simple idea and be persistent, you can find someone who can give you access to someone who will fund it or do it.
“It’s like getting a movie made. When
people said ‘no’ to ‘Fatal Attraction’ 22 times and ‘no’ to ‘Forrest Gump,’ (what) kept me coming back is the same trait that keeps me saying, ‘Damn it, I think this is a good idea and if you don’t want to do it, I’m going to keep trying.’ ”
Of her Oscar-night Hollywood homecoming, Lansing says she’s thrilled to be invited to the party as a predetermined winner, but she frets the pressure to take home the statuette has become overwhelming.
“Winning has become more important than the joy of being nominated,” she says. “How can anyone (who’s) nominated feel like a loser? One of my favorite nights of my entire life was when we were nominated for six Academy Awards for ‘Fatal Attraction.’ We lost every single award, and it was one of the happiest nights I’ve ever had. I still have a picture of me in my princess dress. I look at it and smile because it was wonderful. It was all great.”