As I entered Stage 15 on the Sony lot, I joined a room full of friends -- cancer researchers, Hollywood executives, actors, directors, and colleagues -- gathered to comfort one another as we celebrated the life of the extraordinary movie producer Laura Ziskin, who passed away on June 12 at the age of 61.
The sound stage was decorated in warm earth tones, with comfortable couches, tables, and candle light. Photos of Laura, at work and with her family, decorated the space; nothing ostentatious, just simple, beautiful images in black and white that captured a loving and beloved woman with an outsized personality and charm.
Laura was a leading light in Hollywood -- what her daughter called "a mom in a man's world" -- the brains behind blockbusters like Spiderman and Pretty Woman, as well as two Academy Awards shows. She was also a tireless and trailblazing warrior in the battle against cancer, a disease that takes 1,500 American lives every day, and irrevocably impacts countless more. She refused to believe our current knowledge about cancer was, to borrow the name of one of her movies, "as good as it gets." Through Stand Up To Cancer -- the nonprofit organization she called her most important production -- she helped raise $180 million for cutting-edge research to speed the development and delivery of lifesaving treatments to patients.
I had the privilege of getting to know Laura several years ago, as Stand Up To Cancer was being conceived. At a meeting with her business colleagues Pam Williams and Rusty Robertson, Laura enthusiastically explained her goal of eradicating this disease. At the end of the conversation, she confided that she herself was battling breast cancer. She wanted to find a cure not just for herself but for all the cancer sufferers who are fighting for their lives.
As one colleague has said of Laura, she sometimes described herself as an "impatient patient." She was angry at cancer, but never self-pitying; tackling this challenge as she had every other, with vision, creativity, optimism, and a knack for bringing people together.
At the memorial service, Laura's beautiful daughter, Julia Barry, described not only her love for her mother, but also her admiration for her mother's fierce courage, perseverance, and determination to live her life to the fullest all the way to the end.
Actress Emma Stone challenged us all to ensure the work of Stand Up To Cancer would continue, adding comic relief by suggesting that Laura had been keeping a list of those who had and hadn't supported her cause.
Tobey Maguire fought back tears as he read a letter from a cancer researcher who had met Laura 15 months before, and who described the enormous personal and professional impact her "exhortations, prodding, pushing and encouragement" had made: "Each time I talked with you I came away feeling inspired. Inspired by your revolutionary approach, your intense dedication, your intolerance for the status quo and your enthusiasm."
Last to speak was Laura's husband and soul mate, acclaimed screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who described his wife's tenacity and unyielding zest for life. He shared a brief but touching story about Laura repeatedly trying to ride the big waves on her paddle board, and said his family planned to sprinkle her ashes over the Pacific. Laura made big waves throughout her life; now she will ride those big waves for all time.
The last time I saw Laura was at a meeting in Washington DC, where she had traveled to talk about a movie project with Lee Daniels. She was frail in body, but full of passion for this new project, excited about what lay in store. She never gave up. She knew there was still so much good work left to do.
For me, that positive, action-oriented spirit is Laura's most inspiring and enduring legacy.
We left the memorial with hats emblazoned, "What would Laura do?"