Tom Sherak, former head of motion picture academy, dies at 68
LOS ANGELES — 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 nonpaying 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 fundraising 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, and some veteran staffers left. Her push for more racial diversity and desire to bring younger film people into the invitation-only academy also ruffled some feathers.
In a 2012 Los Angeles 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.
Tom Sherak waits with an Oscar before boarding “Oscar One” heading to Los Angeles for the Academy Awards ceremony, at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on Feb. 9, 2012.