Tom Sherak had a long career as a studio executive and was involved in hundreds of films, including “Black Hawk Down,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.” But Sherak is best known for the jobs he did for free or almost free.
For three years ending in 2012, he was outspoken president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, , during which he launched initiatives but also had to deal with public controversies, including the replacement of the producer and host of an Oscar show.
In September, at the request of Mayor Eric Garcetti, he became Los Angeles’ film czar, , charged with trying to reverse the tide of runaway production. He took the czar job, which came with a $1-a-year salary, even as he was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for prostate cancer.
“I truly believe in that virtue of wanting to help give back for all the fruits my family and I have been able to have all these years,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “It makes you a whole person.”
Sherak, 68, died Tuesday at home in Calabasas. He had been battling prostate cancer for 12 years, according to a family statement. A few hours before he died, a star honoring him was installed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in preparation for a ceremony scheduled for Feb. 14.
“Tom was a true Hollywood original,” Garcetti said in a statement, “moving up the ladder to promote blockbusters, running the Oscars and having a bulging Rolodex filled with not just A-list contacts, but so many close friends who were smitten by his humor, drive and spirit.”
During his career, whether in the commercial end of the film industry or at the academy, Sherak was not shy about expressing his opinions in a spirited way. But he was also known as a diplomat who sought compromise, which is how he became president of the academy.
In early 2009, when he was a member of the organization’s board of governors, he got in such a heated argument with screenwriter Frank Pierson at a board meeting that it nearly turned physical. At a meeting a month later, Sherak said he still believed in his position, but understood Pierson’s and said, “Let’s do it his way.”
Later that year, when it came time to elect a new president, Pierson nominated Sherak, who said he never coveted the non-paying job. But once it was his, he jumped into it with enthusiasm.
Not that it was always smooth sailing. At the start of his tenure, a much-hyped project, the construction of an academy museum, was on hold because of fund-raising difficulties in an economic downturn. And in 2010, longtime Executive Director Bruce Davis, who had run the administration of the organization in a closely held fashion, announced his retirement. Sherak took the opportunity to rework the academy’s structure.
An outsider — Dawn Hudson, who had run the Film Independent group — was brought in as chief executive. Her push for more racial diversity and desire to bring younger film people into the invitation-only academy also ruffled some feathers.
Sherak brought changes to the awards, expanding the best picture nominations from five to as many as 10. He pushed the academy to skew its annual awards show to appeal to younger viewers. To that end, the 2011 show was hosted by the team of Anne Hathaway and James Franco, to less than stellar critical acclaim. The academy tried again the next year, choosing Brett Ratner to co-produce the show with Eddie Murphy as host. But three months before the show was to air, Ratner caused a firestorm of controversy by making a gay slur after a screening of one of his films, and also by making sex-laden remarks during a radio interview with Howard Stern. He stepped down and Murphy followed.
Among Sherak’s proudest accomplishments as academy president, he said in interviews, was to put the organization on more sure financial footing, in part by negotiating a long-term contract with ABC to broadcast the Oscars show. As for the museum, plans have gone ahead to locate it in the refurbished May Co. department store adjacent to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
In a 2012 Times interview, Sherak called his years at the academy among the most satisfying of his career. “Getting up at 2 a.m. to do the Oscar nominations on ABC, I was here before anyone else. I couldn’t wait to get here. It was like I was a kid again.”
Thomas Mitchell Sherak was born June 22, 1945, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He served stateside in the Army during the Vietnam War and in 1970 entered a training program at Paramount Pictures, working in distribution offices on the East Coast and in the Midwest.
He worked for other film companies, including Boston-based theater chain General Cinema as a film buyer. In 1983, he joined 20th Century Fox. He stayed at the studio for nearly two decades, eventually being named chairman of the studio’s domestic film group.
After leaving the studio, he became a partner in Revolution Studios and also worked as a consultant.
In a 2009 interview with Film Journal International, he said some of his best memories as a child involved movies. “I remember like it was yesterday going with my sister and brother-in-law to see ‘Shane’ at the Tuxedo in Brooklyn,” he said. “Those are the things that stay with you. There’s nothing like going to a movie theater, sitting down for two hours in the dark and forgetting all your troubles.”
Sherak is survived by his wife, Madeleine; daughters Barbra Neinstein of Calabasas and Melissa Glasser of Woodland Hills; son William Sherak of Studio City; sister Sandra Kalish of Philadelphia; and 10 grandchildren.