Four years ago, I walked into a crowded conference room on the Sony lot and there were all of these smart, beautiful, determined women sitting behind laptops with big, bright smiles on their faces. The biggest and brightest smile came from a petite lady with an enormous presence, great sense of humor and very stylish glasses. She ended the meeting with a rather audacious (and joyous) pronouncement, "This is where the end of cancer begins."
I've been to a lot of meetings with a lot of fancy pronouncements that never lead anywhere. Projects that yield results usually do so because they have a passionate and savvy producer at the helm. Producers make things happen: money, talent participation, putting the right combination of people together -- uniting them in a cause and inspiring others to rise to the occasion. In this way and so much more, you'd be hard pressed to find a better producer than Laura Ziskin.
Her accomplishments as a producer were, to borrow a title from one of her films, "As Good As It Gets." Her credits included The Spider-Man franchise, Pretty Woman, and two Oscar telecasts, just to name a few. Laura had the courage to develop David Fincher's Fight Club when no one else would and the heart to help make William Hurt's performance in The Doctor possible. For all she accomplished in show business, her legacy in the fight against cancer will be the most lasting. It was very heartening to know so much of the media coverage surrounding her death included the immeasurable impact she made through Stand Up To Cancer.
Laura loved writers and understood the importance of finding the right words. She was an accomplished writer in her own right (Who doesn't love What About Bob?), and she was married to one of the greatest screenwriters of all-time in Alvin Sargent.
The "script" she helped develop for Stand Up To Cancer is clear: get the best scientists from the top cancer hospitals working together on research projects designed to get treatments to patients faster. Scientists call it "translational research" and Laura was its biggest champion. Like many of her film projects, "translational research" wasn't easy to get made -- the script is complex, it costs a lot of money to produce, but the payoff is dramatic: the end of a disease that claims 1,500 American lives a day.
Like in film, Laura was surrounded by A-list talent including: Nobel Laureate Phillip A. Sharp who chairs the esteemed Stand Up To Cancer Scientific Advisory Committee; the American Association of Cancer Research; the Entertainment Industry Foundation, most especially, Lisa Paulsen and Kathleen Lobb; Laura's smart and fearless producing partner, Pam Williams; and a core group of powerful and compassionate women from entertainment and media including Katie Couric, Sherry Lansing, Noreen Fraser, Rusty Robertson, Sue Schwartz, and Ellen Ziffren. Not to mention numerous scientists, doctors, patient advocates, celebrity ambassadors, corporate donors and volunteers.
Laura knew the SU2C scientists and doctors very well, and she'd push them like a good producer does, to reach beyond what they thought was possible. In turn, she'd call on her extensive Rolodex at the drop of hat to support and fund their dream team projects. Getting to the public was harder, she would say, because the war on cancer is approaching middle age, and people are naturally cynical after a 40-year war. "We have to start a movement to get people to believing in science." She proclaimed. Each time I would walk into that Sony conference room, it was like walking into a creative think-tank on how to engage people in the fight against cancer, and inspire them to invest in research. Laura fed off every idea no matter how crazy or whom it came from.
Laura wasn't afraid of cancer -- she wanted to beat it back into submission with every fiber of her being. Part of her mission was to make the disease less frightening for people. The first step was to embrace the word "cancer" -- to speak it, shout it, confront it, so we could one day end it. She called me one day, beaming with excitement, because she met an inspiring group of women, nicknamed the 46 Mommas. These mothers shaved their heads in solidarity with their sons and daughters, each of whom was either in the fight or tragically lost to cancer. Laura marveled at the defiance of these women, and was emboldened by their courage. "We have to put them in the show," she said. And last September, when those 46 Mommas took the stage, millions more stood with them in living rooms across the planet.
As tough as she could be toward the disease, Laura had the depth of heart to hold empathy for every man, woman and child grappling with the cancer. She kept tabs on everyone she knew with cancer, and read everything on the disease she could get her hands on. At the same time, she was fighting her own battle. Although, you'd never know it. She never wanted anyone to feel pity; she wanted them to take action. Her spirit was so strong; I honestly thought she'd be struck by lightning before ever dying of this disease.
This loss is profoundly deep for the Stand Up To Cancer family, as all of us were very close to Laura. It was impossible not to be. She was one of those singular forces of nature, who could move mountains, once thought immovable. We loved being around her, and she loved us. She cheered the smallest of victories, and fostered every out of the box idea. She was the same with the million dollar donor, and someone donating ten bucks on Facebook -- gracious. She reminded me that I was part of something bigger, and for that, I'll be forever grateful. And one day, when there is a cure, or cancer becomes a more consistently manageable disease, Laura will have been a big part of the reason why.
As part of the 2010 Stand Up To Cancer broadcast, writer Eli Dansky, Laura's son-in-law, wrote the following passage which was delivered by George Clooney:
Our own cells do a simple thing millions of times a day: they divide. Over, and over, and over. No matter how you live, who you are, where you are, through no fault of your own, a single mistake in a single cell can spark another that makes battlefields of our own bodies. Some of us are so lucky that in those millions upon millions of moments, everything works perfectly. The great thing about the human species is that we, the lucky ones, can stand up for the not so lucky.
That was Laura Ziskin.
Please visit standup2cancer.org and join the movement to end cancer.
Follow John Koch on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Koch