‘Spider-Man’ producer Laura Ziskin passes away at 61

Laura Ziskin was an uncommonly decent person, and not just by the admittedly low standards of Hollywood culture.

I had several encounters with Ziskin over the years, and always found her to be sharp, funny, and kind, and it was obvious on every set of hers I ever visited that she cared deeply about the work she was doing.  I remember two different times that Harry Knowles and I dealt with her, once on the set for the original “Spider-Man” in 2001, and then again on the set of the live TV version of “Fail Safe,” and in both cases, she went out of her way to deal with us personally instead of handing us over to publicists or assistants.  When she talked about the projects she was working on, it never felt to me like I was being hard-sold something.  Instead, she was just a tireless cheerleader for her collaborators, knowing full well how hard it is to produce even a bad film, much less a great one.

Her career in Hollywood began in the mid-’70s, when she worked for Jon Peters, first as an assistant and then later as one of his development execs.  She worked on films like “A Star Is Born,” eventually earning her first associate producer credit for “Eyes Of Laura Mars.”  She started a company with Sally Field in the ’80s, producing movies like “Murphy’s Romance” and “No Way Out” with her, and she did her part to try and make Dennis Quaid a movie star (a losing battle that many people fought over the years) with films like “D.O.A.” and “Everybody’s All-American.”

It wasn’t until she moved to Disney as a producer that she finally had a monster hit with “Pretty Woman,” a film she originally purchased as a spec script called “3000.”  Ziskin was the one who pushed J.F. Lawton to take his gritty, dark little script with the bummer ending and turn it into the Cinderella riff that launched Julia Roberts to superstardom.  I’m sorry that her comedy “What About Bob?” was not an equal-sized hit, because I’ve always had a fondness for the caustic chemistry between Richard Dreyfuss and Bill Murray in that one.

Ziskin was the sort of person who was a feminist icon because of what she did and how she did it, not because of any philosophy she overtly pushed.  She fought for the material she believed in, and she navigated some truly brutal corporate waters over the years without surrendering her own personal standards.  I love the Van Sant film “To Die For,” and Ziskin was a huge advocate in getting that one made.  That led her to a job at Fox 2000, a newly-formed offshoot of 20th Century Fox, and she worked that job for almost five years before leaving to produce at Columbia.  My theory on that, based on our few conversations over the years, is that she was happier actually making the movies, being hands on with them, and that the responsibility of producing a slate of movies at the studio level just didn’t offer her the same satisfactions.  Still, “As Good As It Gets” was an Oscar-machine and a major financial hit, so she left Fox 2000 on top.

That was nothing compared to what she pulled off with “Spider-Man,” though.  In hindsight, that looks like a sure bet, but at the time we visited the set, everything about the movie was a giant question mark.  It is fitting that her last credit will be for next year’s “The Amazing Spider-Man”.  Her husband, screenwriter Alvin Sargent, has been the secret weapon of the series, polishing the films before production and helping to shape the series overall. 

I admired the way she took professional chances and fought for what was important to her, so when she was diagnosed with cancer, it makes perfect sense that she decided to fight it.  She helped created an initiative called Stand Up To Cancer that helped sponsor and fund major research drives.  I am sorry that, in the end, she lost that particular fight, but I am glad that I met her and got a chance to know her, if only a little bit.  She is one of the people who allows me to believe that you can be good and decent and hold on to your integrity and still succeed in this business.

Laura Ziskin was 61.  She will be greatly missed.