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June 13, 2011

Laura Ziskin, Acclaimed Producer and Activist, Dies

Beyond numerous high-profile film and television credits like Spider-Man and Oscars telecasts, Ziskin founded Stand Up To Cancer, the influential organization devoted to raising awareness and funds to combat the disease. Stand Up's celebrity-supported television specials garnered a Television Academy Honors nod in 2009 for broadening attention to the condition.

Laura Ziskin, a film producer and executive who also worked extensively in television, and helped to create Stand Up To Cancer, one of the medium’s most influential public service initiatives, died June 12, 2011, at her Los Angeles home. Ziskin, who had been battling breast cancer for several years, was 61. As a producer, Ziskin was best known for her work on the Spider-Man franchise, which earned over $1.5 billion worldwide. At the time of her death she was at work on another installment in the franchise, The Amazing Spider-Man, to be released next year. Other feature films she oversaw or produced included Pretty Woman, Fight Club, To Die For, No Way Out and many others. She also produced the Oscars telecast on two occasions for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Her first outing, in 2002, made her the first woman to produce the telecast alone. After being diagnosed with cancer in 2004, Ziskin became a tireless activist on behalf of cancer treatment and research. Her efforts led to the establishment of Stand Up To Cancer in 2008. Drawing on her numerous relationships with high-profile figures in the entertainment industry, Ziskin helped to raise awareness about, and funds for, the disease on a massive scale as executive producer of a televised event, simulcast on the major broadcast networks on September 5, 2008. The one-hour special featured over 100 celebrities including Halle Berry, Josh Brolin, Morgan Freeman, Sidney Poitier, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank, Tilda Swinton, Charlize Theron and Forest Whitaker. The ambitious production was the first so-called “roadblock” event to raise money to proactively combat a major public health threat. The only previous roadblocks had been in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. The one-hour special drew widespread acclaim and earned numerous accolades, including recognition as a recipient of the Television Academy Honors in 2009. "We are deeply saddened by the loss of Laura," said John Shaffner, chairman and CEO of the Television Academy. "She understood the power of television to reach into people's hearts and cause them to step forward and make a difference with her project Stand Up To Cancer." Last September, the second Stand Up To Cancer event aired on the major broadcast networks and more than a dozen cable outlets, with the participation of such stars as George Clooney, Denzel Washington, Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Douglas, Sally Field, Renee Zellweger, Kathy Bates, Stevie Wonder and Lady Antebellum. A 1973 graduate of the USC School of Cinema-Television, Ziskin got her start as an assistant to producer Jon Peters. She went on to become a development executive and later teamed with actress Sally Field to form Fogwood Films. There, Ziskin produced Murphy’s Romance, which starred Field, and No Way Out, with Gene Hackman and a young Kevin Costner. Later, she became a producer at Touchstone Pictures and then president of Fox 2000, where she oversaw such movies as Courage Under Fire, One Fine Day, Inventing the Abbotts, Volcano, Soul Food, Never Been Kissed, Fight Club, Anywhere but Here, Anna and the King and The Thin Red Line. In addition, in 1997, she was an executive producer of the romantic comedy As Good As it Gets, which earned seven Oscars, including Best Picture. In 1999 she left Fox 2000, after which she became a producer based at Columbia Pictures. There, she made the Spider-Man films. Along with George Clooney, Ziskin produced the live television movie Fail Safe, directed by Stephen Frears. It was the first made-for-television movie to air live in more than 35 years and earned six Primetime Emmy nominations. Ziskin was honored with numerous awards, including the David O. Selznick Award and Visionary Award from the Producers Guild of America, the Women In Film’s Crystal Award, the Israel Film Festival’s Visionary Award and the Wellness Community’s Human Spirit Award. She also was nominated for three Primetime Emmys — for each of her Oscar shows and for the 2002 HBO movie Dinner with Friends. Ziskin was actively involved in issues that concern health, the environment, and families, and served on the board of Americans for a Safe Future, the National Council of Jewish Women and Education First. She is survived by her longtime partner, Spider-Man screenwriter Alvin Sargent, and a daughter from her first marriage. A memorial for Ziskin is being planned. For those wishing to honor her memory, the family requests donations be made to Stand Up To Cancer through the organization’s website.

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