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Producer Laura Ziskin dies at 61

'Spider-Man' maven was an advocate for health, environmental issues

Laura Ziskin was flying home from a “Stand Up 2 Cancer” presentation in New York when the plane encountered the kind of harsh, sustained turbulence that can make a grown woman cry.

“I started to panic — I had tears coming to my eyes,” said Sherry Lansing, a fellow trailblazing Hollywood femme and SU2C co-founder, who was in the next seat. “And Laura turned to me and said, ‘I’m not going to die in a plane crash. I have cancer!’?”

It was that kind of fearlessness, Lansing said, that made Ziskin one of Hollywood’s most powerful and enduring women in the face of the Hollywood boys club and, later in her career, a stage 4 cancer diagnosis. “Her philosophy was, you do the work and you ignore everything else,” Lansing told Variety. “These are the cards you’re dealt, and if you’re facing obstacles because you’re a woman or whatever it may be, you do the work better than anyone else, don’t complain, don’t bitch, keep loving life and … eventually, that leads to ‘Spider-Man.'”

Ziskin’s resume as a producer and exec was substantial by any measure, from Sony’s “Spider-Man” franchise to a pair of Oscarcasts and a slew of successful filmsfilms (“Pretty Woman,” “As Good as It Gets,” “What About Bob?”). And yet Ziskin, who fought breast cancer for seven years before dying Sunday at 61, was also notable as a forceful champion of health and environmental issues.

Chief among them was the ambitious charity Stand Up 2 Cancer, which she helped launch in 2008. The nonprofit org wrangled dozens of stars to participate in telethons in 2008 and 2010 that ran across multiple networks and generated $180 million in donations for cancer research.

Remembered for her great taste in material, Ziskin pursued a philosophy of “realistic perfectionism” — which “Spider-Man” director Sam Raimi once described as the ability to collaborate with people without giving up on her own beliefs.

“Every day you make compromises when making movies,” Ziskin told Variety in 2002, while hard at work on “Spider-Man 2” and just months after producing her first Oscars. “You hope you don’t make one that sinks you, but you’re always keeping in your head the idea (of) what perfect would be. … The realistic part is that you never really ever achieve that.”

She nearly did — at least in terms of box office success — with Sony Pictures’ “Spider-Man” series. The first three pics in the series that began in 2002 broke B.O. records around the globe, with “Spider-Man 3” ranking as the highest-grossing pic in Sony history.

“Laura was my closest friend,” said Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair Amy Pascal. “She was the creative guiding light for all of us who loved and worked with her. She was also a frustrating perfectionist, and that’s why she was simply the best.”

Pascal told Variety that one of Ziskin’s most enduring wisdoms was that when hiring a director, “you’d better make sure that person is the same as the lead character … because they basically put themselves in the movie.”

Insiders told Variety that Ziskin was working as recently as last week, sometime after the fourth “Spider-Man” installment — a reboot with a new cast and helmed by Marc Webb — wrapped production.

Ziskin was working on “Spider-Man 2” in 2004 when she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, which had been overlooked by mammograms.

“I was a lucky girl,” Ziskin told Variety in January. “Nothing bad ever happened to me, and then it did.”

Along with contemporaries who include Lansing and the late Dawn Steel, Ziskin was part of a generation of showbiz women who braved male-dominated Hollywood to rise to prominence as execs and producers in the 1980s and 1990s. During her long career, Ziskin segued easily between roles as an exec and as a producer. She produced or exec produced such notable pics as “Hero,” “To Die For,” “Pretty Woman” and “What About Bob?,” taking a writing credit on the latter with life partner Alvin Sargent (who wrote “Spider-Man” 2 and 3, and worked on Sony’s reboot).

She exec produced the Oscarcast in 2002, marking the first time a solo femme took the reins of the live telecast, and again in 2007. The 2002 show clocked in at 4.5 hours, but drew kudos from Variety reviewer Phil Gallo, who wrote: “Producer Laura Ziskin took viewers on an emotional journey that connected L.A. with New York and America via film history. Film-appreciation docus … gave the proceedings a personal sense of recollection, nicely sprucing up the moments between trophy presentations in the longest Oscar telecast on record.”

Telecast was nominated for eight Emmy Awards; her 2007 telecast was nominated for nine.

Ziskin graduated from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 1973, and her earliest days in the biz included stints working for producer Jon Peters and as a veep at Kings Road Prods. In the mid-1980s, she partnered with Sally Field in the Fogwood Films banner, which yielded such pics as the 1985 Field-James Garner starrer “Murphy’s Romance.”

Ziskin was prexy of 20th Century Fox’s Fox 2000 division from its founding in 1994 through 2000. On her watch, the unit released such titles as “Courage Under Fire,” “One Fine Day,” “Inventing the Abbotts,” “Soul Food,” “Never Been Kissed,” “Fight Club” and “The Thin Red Line.” After leaving Fox 2000, she partnered with George Clooney to produce CBS’ live telecast of the drama “Fail Safe.” She teamed with helmer Norman Jewison for the 2001 HBO telepic “Dinner With Friends.”

Projects in development at Ziskin’s eponymous shingle include Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” about White House butler Eugene Allen, who served eight American Presidents over the course of three decades; a Lucy Prebble-scripted feature about the Enron scandal; “Me and My Monster,” which concerns a young boy whose friendship with a bizarre creature changes the course of his life as he becomes an adult; and remakes of Alan J. Pakula’s romantic drama “Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing”; and the recent Austrian heist pic “The Robber.”

Besides her work for cancer research, Ziskin was active in numerous social and philanthropic initiatives, having served on the board of Americans for a Safe Future, the National Council of Jewish Women and Education First.

Ziskin’s survivors include Sargent, and a daughter, Julia, with her first husband Julian Barry, a screenwriter.

A memorial is being planned. Donations may be made to Stand Up 2 Cancer through the org’s website, standup2cancer.org.

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