Laura Ziskin Tribute

Tavis pays tribute to the pioneering Hollywood producer and cancer awareness advocate.

Laura Ziskin started her Hollywood career as a game show writer and went on to become a feature development exec. She was president of Fox 2000 and an indie producer, enjoying success with such films as No Way Out, Pretty Woman, As Good As It Gets and Spider-Man. She was also tapped as the first solo female producer of an Oscar telecast. Ziskin exec-produced the historic simulcast program, Stand Up To Cancer—aimed at raising funds to accelerate cancer research and enable new therapies. This past weekend, at age 61, she lost her 7-year battle with breast cancer.


Tavis: When movie producer Laura Ziskin was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 she vowed not only to fight the disease for herself but indeed for millions of women around the world.

Sadly, she lost her battle with cancer this weekend at the age of 61. But thanks to her position as one of the most successful producers in Hollywood, films like “Pretty Woman,” “As Good As It Gets,” and the Spiderman trilogy, Laura Ziskin organized an unprecedented fundraiser called Stand Up to Cancer.

The star-studded event aired simultaneously on three broadcast networks and featured a who’s who from the entertainment industry.

Laura Ziskin joined us here just days before the 2008 fundraiser to talk about what motivated her to make a difference.

[Begin previously recorded interview clip]

“Laura Ziskin:” So I call it a national televised fundraiser. Of course the goal is – it’s really twofold. I was very influenced by “An Inconvenient Truth.” I produced the Academy Awards a couple of years ago, when “An Inconvenient Truth” won for best documentary.

“Tavis:” It’s the Al Gore documentary about the environment.

“Laura Ziskin:” Yes, correct, yes. I went to Barney’s, where I do all my market research at Christmastime (laughter) and I got a –

“Tavis:” I like how you say that – “Market research at Barney’s.” All right.

“Laura Ziskin:” Right. And I got a shopping bag, and it said, “Have a green Christmas,” and green six months before would have meant something completely different. I thought, boy, that really tells you the power of the mediums in which we all work, to tip the conversation, if you believe in tipping points, which I do.

As a cancer survivor, someone living with cancer, I thought I have to use what I know how to do to raise awareness in this country about this disease that kills 1,500 Americans a day. So 1,500 Americans will die today from cancer, and tomorrow, and yesterday.

If you opened up your newspaper and it said, “1,500 Americans dead” today from anything, and that this was going to happen day after day – 9/11 every other day – as a nation, we would rise up and say, “This is a crisis. We have to do something. We have to do better.”

So a lot of the show is about trying to get everyone to recognize that every single person in this country is affected by this disease. One in two men and one in three women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, and if you haven’t personally experienced it, had cancer yourself, and the odds are what I just suggested, then you know somebody – a friend, a relative – who’s been touched by it.

Surprisingly, the cancer community is very divisive, so there’s this kind of – someone called it the balkanization of body parts. So breast cancer people are fighting for resources for breast cancer, and prostate cancer are fighting for prostate cancer.

But we’re all in it together, and in fact the science tell us that pretty soon cancers won’t be characterized by body parts, they’ll be characterized by the type of cancer, because that’s what we’re learning about the biology of cancer.

So we need to come together. We’re a huge, huge constituency and we have political power, too. So the show, we want to raise money, there’s research, very specific research, we want to fund, but we also want to raise awareness and suggest to people, as with global warming. That movie didn’t fix the problem, but it changed people’s attitudes. It made people have a kind of awareness that they didn’t have before, so they make incremental changes and pretty soon the big changes will come.

“Tavis:” The Al Gore example is probably a good example, Laura, because I was just about to ask how it is that you get people to be hopeful. Because on the one hand you want to raise money, you’re trying to inspire hope, but those numbers that you just laid out are so damning and so disparaging for people, the problem seems so massive.

To your point, there’s so many different kinds of cancer. It’s troubling for me, as it is for you, I suspect, when somebody dies and say “How did they die,” you expect somebody to say nowadays, “Cancer.” It’s not even a matter of what kind of cancer; it’s just that everybody seems to be dying of some form of cancer.

How do you inspire hope with a project like this, as massive, as ambitious as it is, when the problem just seems so outsized?

“Laura Ziskin:” Well, I think you inspire hope in two ways. One is the statistic I didn’t give you is that there are almost 11 million cancer survivors today.

“Tavis:” That’s important.

“Laura Ziskin:” That’s people who’ve survived cancer who may be living with cancer. A wonderful doctor who treats me said, “We don’t have to win the war. We’ll take a tie.” So there is now the current thinking about cancer therapy is that we can make cancer a chronic, manageable disease – a disease that you can live with.

So cancer isn’t going to kill you. If cancer metastasizes, then it can kill you, but there’s a way to live with cancer and we’re starting to understand it. So I think that’s one way that we’re hopeful.

The other way that we’re hopeful is look at all the incredibly difficult problems that we’ve solved. Not to make it – this is a worldwide epidemic, cancer, but American ingenuity, think what it’s led to.

We thought it was impossible to go to the moon, but someone challenged us to go there and we went there, and we went beyond. We created an IT revolution that changed the way the entire world lives, changed all of our lives.

So I think the first step is acknowledging the problem, and the second step is saying we are committed, and we commit the resources and the government gets committed and the drug companies and the scientists get committed to solving it.

The other thing that’s very, very hopeful is that technology has put us on the brink of understanding the biology and the genetics of cancer. So in 1971, when Richard Nixon declared war on cancer, we didn’t really understand cancer. We didn’t really understand what the mechanisms are.

Now we know so much better we can actually look inside cells and see what’s the biological process that’s causing it. If we can figure out what causes it, we know, because there are certain cancers that are more treatable than others, when we can find the pathways we can block them and we can cure it.

“Tavis:” I’ve got just about 45 seconds here. Let me ask very quickly how your own person experience with breast cancer has made you want to do this rather than making you bitter?

“Laura Ziskin:” Well, I’m not someone who says cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me, because it wasn’t, and my cancer went undiagnosed for a long time and it was found at a very late stage, so can I say it sucked? Yeah. It sucked.

Tavis:” I think you just did.

“Laura Ziskin:” Yeah. But I feel better – someone said to me, “Well, if you have cancer, how do you feel working on this every day,” and I said, “I feel good, because I feel like I’m – just the same thing I’m encouraging everybody else to do, get engaged, get involved and demand that the problem be fixed,” because it’s within our power to do that. So I feel empowered and I want the people who watch the show to feel empowered, too, because I do feel positive about it.

[End previously recorded interview clip]

Tavis: In addition to a very large TV audience here in the U.S., “Stand Up to Cancer” was seen in 170 countries around the world, bringing in more than $100 million in just one night. At her insistence, all of the money raised that night went to cancer research.

Laura Ziskin lost her battle with breast cancer on Sunday night at the age of 61, but her efforts on behalf of cancer patients everywhere will live on for decades to come.

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Last modified: June 15, 2011 at 2:00 pm