UCLA Today

Sherry Lansing: from making movies to curing cancer

Sherry Lansing
Hollywood dynamo Sherry Lansing talked about her philanthropic work supporting scientific research — "the most noble profession" — during a recent visit to UCLA.
As the first woman ever to run a major studio, Sherry Lansing defined her reputation and career in the Hollywood film industry. Named president of 20th Century Fox in 1980 when she was just 35, Lansing spent nearly three decades running with a creative crowd of directors, producers, writers, actors and others making more than 200 movies, including history's highest-grossing "Titanic."
 
But what many may not know about Lansing is her service to science, specifically to cancer research. That part of her life briefly came into the limelight April 6 when she addressed faculty, staff and students assembled at the Neuroscience Research Building for a seminar hosted by the Institute for Molecular Medicine.
 
Lansing’s interest in scientific research has its roots in personal tragedy: Her mother died from ovarian cancer when Lansing was 40. "When I watched the cancer literally eat her body, and the kind of hopelessness and helplessness that I felt," she became determined to honor her mother’s memory by doing everything she could to advocate for cancer cures.
 
She began by convincing business tycoon and philanthropist Armand Hammer that she could help him determine research worthy of his financial support. One of the first researchers she recommended was UCLA’s Judith Gasson, who had just discovered GM-CSF, a hormone-like substance that is used with cancer patients to help them better tolerate chemotherapy and radiation therapy and avoid infections. Gasson is now director of UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and co-director of the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine.
 
Neuroscience Research Building
UCLA's Neuroscience Research Building, site of the IMED Seminar Series.
Lansing has since worked in a wide range of similar pursuits. In 2005, she created The Sherry Lansing Foundation, which is dedicated to raising awareness and funds for cancer research. She also teamed up with Hollywood colleagues to found Stand Up to Cancer, a program of the Entertainment Industry Foundation. Stand Up to Cancer was envisioned as a way to promote new collaborations among cancer researchers worldwide.
 
"We wanted to bring together the best and the brightest," said Lansing, describing the "Dream Teams" of researchers the organization has backed with $10 million per team in funding. Numerous UCLA researchers have been on the receiving end of this philanthropy, including renowned cancer researcher Dr. Dennis Slamon, who developed the breakthrough breast cancer drug Herceptin.
 
While Lansing exudes confidence speaking about scientific research, she admitted that this wasn't always the case. As a Hollywood exec preparing to visit a research laboratory for the first time, she recalled, "I was very nervous, thinking, ‘Oh God! I’m in the film business,'" worlds removed from science. But she soon felt at ease.
 
"I was instantly comfortable," Lansing recalled. "The (researcher) that I met could have been a film director … or a producer or cameraman or anybody who is creative. He had all the same traits," from passion and conviction to laser-like focus. "When you’re making a movie — or when a researcher is doing an experiment — the whole world stops. Nothing is more important."
 
Describing herself as "a maverick" and "not so conventional," Lansing noted that terms like these apply to scientists and movie makers alike. "They are the same kind of person, a little off — and I mean that in a good way," she said to audience laughter.
 
In a wide-ranging discussion with seminar director and Associate Professor Lee Goodglick, Lansing, who retired from the film industry to devote herself full-time to philanthropic and volunteer causes (including being a UC regent), also talked about her Chicago childhood and early love of movies, her move after college to L.A., her four years of teaching high school math in Watts and her foray into acting.
 
After playing roles alongside John Wayne in "Loving" and "Rio Lobo" ("I was a terrible actress," she confessed), she found her niche behind the scenes as a script reader for MGM Studios, where she rapidly rose in the ranks.
 
Since then, Lansing has "come full circle," as she put it, in also seeking to improve education in underserved schools in L.A., including the high school in Watts where she once taught math. "Sadly," she said of her teaching experience, "I learned that it’s not a level playing field. You can drive just 20 minutes (from UCLA) and there are no math teachers, no textbooks." She is the creator of EnCorps Teachers Program, which helps corporate professionals transition into second careers in math and science education.
 
And while Lansing continues to appreciate a great movie — responding to a question from Goodglick about films he and his wife should be sure to see, she recommended all 10 movies nominated for this year's Academy Awards — it’s that other creative profession that she reserves much of her passion for these days.
 
"The thing I most respect is scientific research, finding cures for disease and saving lives," Lansing said. "I think that is the most noble profession."
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View a video of Lansing’s talk at www.IMEDseminar.com.
 
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