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Laura Ziskin dies at 61; producer of 'Spider-Man' film franchise

Ziskin helped break the glass ceiling for women in Hollywood. In nearly three decades as a producer and studio executive, she had a profound effect on what contemporary moviegoers watch.

June 13, 2011|By Steven Zeitchik and Nicole Sperling, Los Angeles Times
  • Laura Ziskin was the primary creative force behind the "Spider-Man" films and shepherded the second and third movies in the franchise while undergoing treatment for cancer. With Katie Couric and studio executive Sherry Lansing, she founded a nonprofit that has raised more than $200 million for cancer research.
Laura Ziskin was the primary creative force behind the "Spider-Man"… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Laura Ziskin, a veteran film producer who helped break Hollywood's glass ceiling for women, has died. She was 61.

Ziskin died Sunday of breast cancer at her home in Los Angeles, said a spokesman at Sony Pictures, where she had a producing deal and made many of her movies in recent years.

Ziskin, who had fought a seven-year battle with the disease, also founded a nonprofit televised event, Stand Up to Cancer, that has raised more than $200 million for cancer research.

Best known for producing all the films in the "Spider-Man" franchise — including the upcoming release "The Amazing Spider-Man" — Ziskin had a profound effect on what contemporary moviegoers watch. In nearly three decades as a producer and studio executive, she made or oversaw a wide range of films, including the 1987 Cold War thriller "No Way Out;" the 1990 Richard Gere-Julia Roberts romantic comedy "Pretty Woman;" and 1997's James L. Brooks' Oscar-contending dramedy "As Good As It Gets."

Born March 3, 1950, in the San Fernando Valley to Mae Lee and Jay Ziskin, the latter a writer, Ziskin graduated from USC's School of Cinematic Arts in 1973. She began her Hollywood career as an assistant to Jon Peters, a veteran producer who would go on to head Sony Pictures. As an assistant, she worked on the 1976 remake of "A Star Is Born."

Her first producing credit came with the 1985 dramatic comedy "Murphy's Romance" starring Sally Field, with whom Ziskin formed a production company, Fogwood Films.

Over the next quarter of a century, Ziskin showed an adept hand at both comedies and action movies, the last particularly unusual for female producers at the time. She produced the Dennis Quaid-Meg Ryan 1988 remake of the noir classic "D.O.A." as well Gus Van Sant's 1995 black satire, "To Die For," and lighter fare such as Bill Murray's 1991 comedy, "What About Bob?"

But by far her most significant filmic legacy is "Spider-Man." At the time of the first film, in 2002, many in the industry doubted the broad appeal of comic-book films, but Ziskin pressed forward. The movie, starring Tobey Maguire, grossed more than $400 million around the world and paved the way for the superhero fare now standard during the summer film-going season.

One person close to the production of "The Amazing Spider-Man," with Andrew Garfield as the webbed hero, noted that Ziskin was extremely involved even as her cancer began to spread in recent months.

Although Ziskin had been based on the Sony Pictures lot for years, during the 1990s she also headed a division at 20th Century Fox that was responsible for the kind of serious dramas Hollywood studios rarely make anymore, including "Courage Under Fire," "Fight Club" and "The Thin Red Line."

Ziskin also produced two Oscar telecasts, in 2002 and 2007. Her first effort was notable for landing Woody Allen, famously averse to awards-show hoopla. "Woody wouldn't let us tell anybody. Not even the network knew," she recalled to The Times after the show. Ziskin was also the first woman to produce an Oscar telecast on her own.

Ziskin was a creature of Hollywood; in addition to working on a wide range of movies, she married screenwriter Julian Barry, with whom she had a daughter, Julia.

After the couple divorced, Ziskin became the life partner of Oscar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent. More than two decades her senior, Sargent was a veteran Hollywood hand, having written films such as 1966's "Gambit" and 1973's "Paper Moon"; he would also write a number of films Ziskin produced.

Outside the film world, Ziskin was best known for her efforts in helping to found Stand Up to Cancer, a research initiative she founded with Katie Couric, former Paramount chief Sherry Lansing and others. The organization held a high-profile Hollywood telethon that drew on the star power of the media and entertainment world to raise money for cancer research.

At the Producers Guild Awards in January, Ziskin's voice was weak when she received the group's "visionary" award. She spoke about cancer's destruction on families and the importance of encouraging cancer researchers to collaborate on their work. "In my world, the hero always defeats the villain, the boy always gets the girl, and cancer is no more," she said.

But perhaps her most lasting legacy will be her admission to the inner circle of A-list producers, for decades considered an all-boys club. In Mollie Gregory's 2002 book about females and Hollywood, "Women Who Run the Show," Ziskin had one of the most memorable quotes.

"Men have built the cities, made and defined the culture, interpreted the world. At no time in recorded history have women been culture-makers," she said. "Movies are arguably the most influential, important medium in the world. They have a tremendous cultural impact. Because women are now making movies, then women's ideas, philosophy, point of view will seep into that culture. And that's never happened in history. Ever, ever, ever. We can't even see the impact of that yet."

Ziskin is survived by Sargent and her daughter, Julia.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

nicole.sperling@latimes.com

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