By Steven Zeitchik
6:35 PM PST, January 29, 2014
The passing of a Hollywood executive is often greeted with pleasant industry remembrances and kind emails. But the death of Tom Sherak at the age of 68 set off a round of intensely warm reactions not just from fellow Hollywood players but also from personalities as wide-ranging as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti.
Their depth of feeling and the breadth of people expressing them underscore a legacy that goes well beyond movies.
Sherak, who died Tuesday at his home in Calabasas after a fierce battle with prostate cancer, served as a long-running executive at 20th Century Fox and then Revolution Studios, as an advisor to Marvel Studios and as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was scheduled to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next month.
Sherak's tenure at Fox — he worked in multiple marketing and distribution capacities in the 1980s before graduating to the head of the domestic film group in the 1990s — largely coincided with a particular period in American cinema.
Studios had moved away from the gritty character dramas of the 1970s but had yet to narrow into the handful of splashy spectacles common today. As a result, the movies in which Sherak played a key role fell into the category of smart, well-made entertainment — and across a variety of genres. "Wall Street" and "Aliens" came on his watch; so did "Romancing the Stone" and "Broadcast News."
As the zeitgeist began to change in the 1990s, he moved with it, and his Fox in that period was behind films such as "Independence Day."
Yet it was many of his other efforts that friends and associates were quick to recall on Wednesday.
Moved 20 years ago by his daughter's battle with multiple sclerosis, Sherak founded a high-profile charity to fight the disease and recruited some of the biggest celebrities to its flagship event. On Wednesday the group, MS Hope, announced that it would be renamed in Sherak's memory.
Byron Allen, the comedian and producer who hosted the event for the last two decades, said, "This is an extremely competitive town, and yet he got all these people to come together on those nights."
Allen also noted something that passed the lips of many who knew Sherak: his generous manner.
"He was so kind that you literally won't find anyone to say anything bad about him," Allen said. "And he would never say anything bad about anyone else. Even when someone wasn't being a good guy, he would just say that 'that guy doesn't get it.' Do you know how rare that is in this cutthroat business?"
Rob Friedman, co-chairman of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, who as a Warner Bros. executive during Sherak's Fox days saw and interacted with him across the aisle, noted a similar tendency in his professional dealings.
"He was never a combatant but always a diplomat," Friedman said. "In our business, issues come up [between studios], and for him it was always about resolution" — the sort, Friedman added, in which "everyone's happy and one side doesn't feel like a fast one has been pulled on them."
Sherak was, then, in many ways ideally disposed to become president of the motion picture academy, a lightning-rod job in which one must balance highly diverse constituencies.
Last year, he took on the politically thorny role of director of Los Angeles' film office; Garcetti asked him to draw on his skills as a consensus-builder in the interest of returning movie production to the city.
"What's devastating about this is that Tom faced the challenge of cancer for many years," Garcetti said Tuesday night. "He was a survivor and fighter, and I figured he was going to be able to fight it." He added that Sherak "was a public servant long before he became a film czar."
Garcetti recalled speaking with Sherak as recently as last Thursday; the two discussed strategies to support the local film industry and lobby for stronger state film and television tax credits.
"The last meeting we had, it was very powerful," Garcetti said, his voice quavering. "I didn't know how bad things were. He insisted on that meeting, which was incredible. It was a powerful life lesson."
Sherak's childhood love for the Brooklyn Dodgers — he grew up in the New York borough — translated into fanhood in Los Angeles, and several years ago he joined the team as a special assistant to the general manager.
Sherak even befriended Vin Scully (he bought gifts for him from the studio gift shop, according to former Fox colleague Brad Turell), and the two golfed together. Scully said in a statement to The Times that Sherak "was one of the most generous people I have ever known. With a heart of gold, he eagerly wanted to do you a favor. He was a special person and he will be deeply missed."
Colletti cited Jackie Robinson's famous line about a life being measured by its effect on others. He called Sherak "a best friend to so many," also noting that he "made dreams come true and never stopped trying, even when his illness would have stopped many from carrying on."
Times staff writer Charles Fleming and Richard Verrier contributed to this report.
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