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'Living Proof' was a labor of love

Getting the TV film project rolling wasn't easy. The support of Renee Zellweger proved to be key.

October 18, 2008|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Heroes frequently don't make front page headlines.

"Living Proof," which stars Harry Connick Jr. and premieres on Lifetime tonight, chronicles the 12-year effort of one such unsung hero, UCLA's Dr. Dennis Slamon, to develop the breast cancer drug Herceptin. Since its approval by the Food and Drug Administration a decade ago, Herceptin, which targets a genetic alteration called Her-2 found in roughly a quarter of breast cancer patients, has saved thousands of lives.

The movie is part of the cable network's 14th annual Stop Breast Cancer for Life initiative, which is timed to coincide with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In addition, Lifetime will also stream the film on mylifetime.com beginning Sunday and will make three previous breast cancer awareness movies from the cable network available on Video on Demand.

For the film's screenwriter and executive producer, Vivienne Radkoff, the project has been a true labor of love. She had long wanted to tell Slamon's story -- her script is based on the book "Her-2" by Robert Bazell -- but couldn't seem to find traction in Hollywood.

Then she met with executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron.

"We were just amazed at the story," said Meron. "And we thought the perfect place would be Lifetime.

"It told the story of a hero that nobody had ever heard of. It really spoke to us in a way that we wanted to get behind it and get it done."

The team had been looking to produce a film similar in depth and tone to HBO's Emmy Award-winning "And the Band Played On," which examined the early years of AIDS research. Zadan was particularly interested in revealing the rigorous, often arduous drug approval process from the perspective of a doctor.

"I don't remember seeing a movie that dealt with the process like this show," said Zadan. "You see that over 12 years at any given movement [the drug company] could have said we are not going to do it, or he could have said, 'I can't take it anymore.' "

Zadan and Meron took the script to their friend Renee Zellweger, who had starred in "Chicago," which they had also produced.

"We knew she wanted to start producing, and we knew that breast cancer awareness was her No. 1 cause," said Meron.

What they didn't know was that Zellweger's publicist, Nanci Ryder, had not only been saved by Herceptin but also her physician was Slamon.

"So Renee just jumped on board," said Zadan.

Lifetime gave the project a green light but also gave Meron and Zadan only a few weeks to prepare for the production, which would be shot in New Orleans.

"We needed to call upon all the people we have worked with and our friends," said Zadan. "We said you need to jump on a plane and go to New Orleans and do this because of the importance of the subject matter."

The producers lined up an award-winning cast, including Tammy Blanchard, Amanda Bynes, Angie Harmon, Regina King, Amy Madigan, Swoosie Kurtz, Bernadette Peters and Trudie Styler.

Zellweger, who was making a film with Connick when she signed on to the project, ended up giving the actor-singer a copy of the script. As it turned out, Zellweger wasn't the only one with a personal connection to the story. Connick lost his mother to cancer when he was young.

"All the relationships on this film were very much interconnected," said Meron. "It made for a joyous experience. Everybody was there for the right reason."

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susan.king@latimes.com

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