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Moviemaker Moves to Prime Time — of Life

After a stellar career as the first woman to head a major motion picture studio, Sherry Lansing has turned her attention to humanitarian work.

by Robert Brenner (J07)

When Sherry Lansing (C66, H95) received an Oscar at the 2007 Academy Awards, it wasn't for a movie role. Her statuette represented the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and the one-time actor could not have been happier. "I promise to spend the rest of my life trying to live up to it," she told the audience.

Lansing spoke as though she hadn't already left an indelible mark on the world, having become the first female head of a major Hollywood studio when she was appointed chief of 20th Century Fox in 1980, at age 35. She later oversaw the production of three winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture -- Forrest Gump, Braveheart and Titanic -- as chair of Paramount Pictures. Yet when she chose to exit the movie industry in 2005 as one of its most powerful figures, it was in pursuit of even bigger things.

In the same year she founded the Sherry Lansing Foundation, which primarily supports cancer research, a cause she committed to after her mother died of ovarian cancer when Lansing was 40, and education, a passion from her days as a substitute teacher in Los Angeles.

The foundation's flagship program is a project called PrimeTime, which connects retirees with volunteer opportunities, especially in Los Angeles-area public schools. Last June, PrimeTime partnered with the state of California on EnCorps, a program that seeks to increase the number of math and science teachers by recruiting and training former corporate executives.

Lansing's own "third act" follows two that set high standards, first as a teacher and then as a Hollywood executive. She grew up in Chicago, where she attended a double feature every weekend. At Northwestern she majored in theater because there was not yet a film program and minored in education at her parents' request.

"My education translated well to film," says Lansing. "I learned about literature, acting and life. And life is what you make movies about."

After graduation Lansing moved to Los Angeles and began substitute teaching. She got small parts in a couple of movies, including Rio Lobo with John Wayne, but decided her future wasn't in acting. She took a job reading scripts for an independent producer and then eventually became a producer herself.

"I got into the movies because I saw the power of social and emotional change," says Lansing. "I always tried to find something I could believe in in each film." Lansing brought Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal and The Accused to the big screen prior to running Paramount Pictures' Motion Picture Group, beginning in 1992.

Lansing had phenomenal instincts for what makes a good story and how to connect with an audience, says Donald DeLine, an independent producer who partnered with Lansing on several films. "Combined with that, she always made a human connection in every business dealing. She's an incredible motivator of people, even when she had to deliver tough news."

DeLine was the executive producer of The Italian Job when he ran into delays and had to ask Lansing for help. "I needed more money and more time to finish the movie," he recalls. "That's when I saw a side of her I'd never seen before. She told me, 'Listen, kid. You better lock yourself in the editing room with your editor and director and stay there all weekend. There's no more money, and there's no more time'"

DeLine finished the film that weekend. "Sherry gave me a great lesson in creativity under pressure," he says.

Lansing has brought that determination to her humanitarian endeavors.

Earlier this year, Lansing orchestrated a partnership between the International Creative Management talent agency and the Los Angeles Unified School District to help renovate eight dilapidated school auditoriums over the next five years. Lansing spoke at one of the program's beneficiaries, Dorsey High School, where she had once taught. She told the students there was no reason why they shouldn't have the same opportunities to perform and create that she had. "Who knows?" she says. "The next Steven Spielberg might have been in the audience."

Robert Brenner (J07) is a freelance writer for the Age (Melbourne) Magazine and a freelance copy editor for Lonely Planet in Melbourne, Australia.

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Sherry Lansing shows off the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles.Photo by Lester Cohen and WireImage