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The Highest Stakes
Fall 2006

By Christine Lennon

Think that being the first woman president of a Hollywood studio and bringing record-breaking films like Titanic and Forrest Gump into the world would be difficult? When you're Sherry Lansing, those challenges yield results. Lucky for us, because her new passion is cancer research.

If you find yourself in a conversation with Sherry Lansing, former chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures Motion Picture Group, don't expect her to talk about her "golden retirement years." She may have stepped down from her official paying gig in 2005, after more than 12 years overseeing the release of Paramount's more than 200 films (including Forrest Gump, Braveheart and Titanic), however, someone with the drive to make it to the top of the rather aggressive food chain that is Hollywood should hardly be expected to pack in that passion for deal-making in exchange for rounds of Bridge and a quilting circle.

In fact, she considers herself more of a neophyte than a retiree, particularly in her newly chosen field: Cancer research advocate.

"This is what I'm doing with my third chapter," says Lansing, who has founded The Sherry Lansing Foundation, a philanthropic organization focusing on cancer research, health and education.

Though she might not seem the obvious choice to be a regent on the California state stem cell research board, Lansing is uniquely qualified for this sort of work. There is her database of contacts and comfort level with hundred-million-dollar budgets that might send others into a panic, but there's also her devotion to medical research.

"I lost my mother to ovarian cancer when she was only 64. I was 40 at the time, and when I saw the incredible suffering and pain she went through - and how helpless I felt - I thought 'There must be a reason for this: When I'm 60, I'm going to devote my time to fighting cancer.'"

For Lansing, a Chicago native, Northwestern graduate and former fashion model who dreamed about being a part of "the business" while watching old movies in a South Side theater, this kind of enormous challenge is sought, not avoided. Her legendary career began at a time when, she says, most women thought their only options were to be teachers or nurses. So when she decided to make the move to Los Angeles at 22 to become an actress, it was much to her mother's dismay.

"I packed all my stuff and drove cross-country because I wanted to make movies," she says. Already a model and doing commercials in Chicago, Lansing and her then husband made the move together, a decision that "horrified" her mother. "She wanted me to marry and have two children and join the country club."

Once Lansing made it west, she found work teaching high school English and math in Watts and East L.A. But the only way she thought she could be a part of "the business" was through acting, given her experience with commercials back home, and her lack of knowledge about the industry.

She was cast in a few movies, namely Rio Lobo with George Segal and John Wayne. Her performances in bit parts, she says, were "...terrible. But I learned what everyone else did on the set."

On one set in particular, for a movie called Loving by producer Ray Wagner, "they had some script problems," says Lansing, who had a role in the film. "I very quietly suggested a change, and Wagner said 'God, you're smart. If you ever want to do anything but act...'"

After a couple of years in front of the camera and the realization that the acting would never progress, she contacted Wagner and was hired to read scripts for $5 an hour.

"Because of my English background, I could synopsize it, summarize it and give a critique," she says. "I was thrilled that someone was actually paying me to read in my own little office."

A couple of years later, a stint at Talent Associates developing television shows followed. Then, at 30, Lansing was hired by MGM as executive story editor, and success (namely Coma, from a Michael Crichton book) soon followed.

At MGM she was responsible for looking for new material, new books or new screenplays, and developed "somewhat of a reputation for being good at script. I got promoted to vice president of creative affairs, working on projects with the writers and developing them into a screenplay." From there Lansing went to Columbia Pictures as vice president of production. "We produced Kramer vs. Kramer and The China Syndrome, which were huge hits."

All told, it took Lansing only five years to make the leap from MGM story editor to being tapped, at 35, as the first female president of 20th Century Fox.

"When I got that job, it was on the front page of The New York Times, and the headline was 'Former Model Becomes President of Fox,'" she says. "It negated my experience, and reeked of sexism. I couldn't believe it."

Today it hangs in her office.

"[This business] is not perfect - nothing is - but it's come an extraordinarily long way." With help from a therapist who encouraged Lansing to focus on her self-esteem and abilities, she was able in those first years on the job to ignore what she describes as "negativity" in the entertainment community.

"As a woman who once made money based on the way I looked, and who grew up in a world where I was supposed to get married and have two children and that's all that I was supposed to be, it was a difficult and uphill battle. I had to shed a lot of those self-esteem issues," she says. "One of the first things my therapist said to me was, 'Why can't you run a studio?' And I thought, 'No way' ... I don't have those same issues today. It's not just an unfair cruel world; you have to take responsibility for yourself and your own actions. It was hard, but I tried to concentrate on what I had to do: Find a good script, or make a good script from a book. If you start to concentrate on the indignities, it becomes kind of toxic. It keeps you from moving forward."

Lansing's forward momentum is showing no signs of slowing, even at 62. In addition to work for her own foundation and The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, she was also appointed as chairperson of health services for the University of California's five hospitals. Even with a plate this full, she says she has more time now to spend traveling with her husband, film director William Friedkin (The Exorcist), who has also taken to directing operas here and abroad.

"I have this feeling that this third chapter that starts when you're 60 is going to be really terrific," she says. "Everybody has something else that they're interested in, you just have to start to lay the seeds for it early; you have to plan for it. In the last five years of my job, I really started to do that, to work with various cancer organizations, so that when I left my job there was no transition. I was excited. It was like graduating from college and going out into the world."

And for anybody keeping score, the last time Lansing switched gears, took a chance and branched out to a new career, the results were pretty spectacular.

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