Tom Sherak: The heart and soul of Hollywood
by Jason Hariton
Yesterday, January 28, 2014, another iconic star was immortalized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. While this particular cement tribute came far too late for those long aware of the man whose name it bears, it was cast just in time to be held in his arms.
Sadly though, the plaque presented in his Calabasas home must now wait to be enshrined at a posthumous ceremony on February 14th. Industry icon, philanthropist, mentor, devoted family man and dear friend to many, Tom Sherak, died at 68 from complications due to his long battle with prostate cancer. His five decade Hollywood career is marked notably by his high profile posts as Chairman of 20th Century Fox Domestic Film Group, President of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and, most recently, as L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s new Film Czar, a position he accepted for $1 per year in order to champion a cause he truly believed in.
That cause – the fight to bring back run-away production – is one close to my own heart as Co-Chair of the Producers Guild of America’s FilmUSA Committee, an industry advocate and authority on U.S. production incentives. California has seen a 50% drop in film production, costing the state billions in revenue and jobs. As Film Czar, Tom was tasked with making the city more film-friendly, while lobbying lawmakers in Sacramento to bolster California’s film tax credit program. He was working with a coalition of industry groups to support legislation that would increase funding for the state program, making it more competitive with the many states and countries drawing production away from California. When financial incentives force Captain America to shoot in London, we have a real competition problem.
From the get-go, Garcetti made it clear why he chose Tom: “He’s as universally liked as anyone can be in the business.” Even with his impressive résumé littered with remarkable accomplishments, we’re now experiencing a very rarely seen outpouring of emotion from the entertainment community – true, heartfelt feelings of appreciation, admiration and loss for someone that will be defined not by his legacy as a studio exec or industry titan, but by his legacy as a man.
A man that, after having a daughter diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, managed to raise $40 million to battle the disease. A man that led the Academy while battling back his own prostate cancer. Tom didn’t stare down adversity… he ran right over it. As director James Cameron put it: “he embodied the heart and soul of the movies.” At his core Tom was the “epitome of a mensch,” as MGM Chairman & CEO Gary Barber described him. A person of integrity and honor.
Jason Alexander, Actor:
“My pal, Tom Sherak was 1 of the great souls I have ever known. He passed today. Rest his soul. The film world & my world lost a good man.” @IJasonAlexander
Thanks to my lifelong friend, Brian Gordon, and his wife, actress Meredith Eaton, I was lucky enough to be a fly on the wall of the Sherak household. I got to see Tom Sherak in his element – with his large and loving family – and I glimpsed first hand the patriarch that was so intertwined with the heart and soul of this industry.
Meredith and Brian, a photographer whose portfolio is filled with so many celeb faces it looks like an issue of People, wanted to thank a dear friend for “always being there without prompt or hesitation.” Tom, who had a well-known passion for helping and supporting others but little need for praise or acknowledgement himself, had rebuffed all of their past attempts at thank-you gestures. So, they came up with the one gesture that they knew he would never turn down: a photo session for his entire family.
The shoot was incredibly important to Brian and instead of the typical crew, he asked me to be by his side. Throughout the daylong shoot at the Sherak’s house, Tom and his wife Madeleine, along with their children and their families, treated Brian and I as part of the clan. We felt welcome and comfortable in their midst and we got some great shots of a family that never needed to feign affection.
Brian and I couldn’t help but notice the caring that Tom openly showed for Madeleine. Their bond was a lesson for us as young husbands, down to the backyard bench they’d had engraved with a quote of special meaning only to them.
As the day came to an end, Tom insisted that we stay for dinner. “We have plenty of BBQ’d ribs.” Not wanting to impose upon their family gathering, we politely declined and thanked him profusely for the offer. Despite his and Madeleine’s persistence, we held to our convictions and bid them good night. Of course, they wouldn’t let us leave without a rain check to come back for dinner sometime soon.
It was a joy to cross paths with such a wonderful man who leaves behind an indelible legacy. While gone, he’s sure to live on within the soul of the business. I genuinely wish Bri and I still had the chance to cash in our rain check and sit down for that dinner…
Heartfelt words from some of the industry leaders
Tom personally touched:
James Cameron, Director/Producer:
“Tom was a mentor to me and a good friend for almost three decades. He embodied the heart and soul of movies — entertainment and showmanship — timeless values in our business. There was always a sparkle in his eye when it was time to release a film, and you knew that it was going to be a grand adventure playing out on a global stage. I will miss his spirit, his sense of fun, his love of cinema — but most of all, his friendship.”
Jon Landau, Producer:
“There was no one that I respected more than Tom, not just as a businessman but as a person, and how he conducted his life should be an inspiration for us all.”
Bill Mechanic, former Head of Fox Filmed Entertainment:
“Tom was a very good executive but a better man. In the selfish world of Hollywood, he existed to help others. Whether it was raising money for MS or leading the Academy, he always tried to do the right thing. If the idea is to leave the world a better place for having been there, then he now rests in the pantheon of human beings.”
George Lucas, Director/Producer:
“Tom’s passion for everything he did made him an inspiration to work with. His boundless enthusiasm for Star Wars earned him an honorary Jedi master title. He was unique in the industry and will be missed.”
Sumner Redstone, majority owner of Viacom and CBS:
“I’ve known Tom for ages, and will miss him sadly. He was such a great friend. The industry will miss Tom… he was my best friend at one time.”
Henry Winkler, Actor:
“RIP Tom Sherak.. If you needed him…Tom was Always there. Tom we are so happy you were in our lives .. Our thoughts go to all the Sheraks” @hwinkler4real
Robert Evans, Film Producer:
“Tom Sherak, He singularly raised the bar of integrity with those of us who were lucky enough to know him. I did ! What a fine human being.” @The_RobertEvans
Hawk Koch, former President of the Academy and current President of the Producers Guild of America:
“Tom was an incredible man who had a zeal for life unlike anyone I’ve ever known. He was a real advocate for our industry and his sheer determination to move the Academy forward was paramount and has had a profound effect on all of us. I’m deeply saddened by this news and my heart goes out to Madeleine and his entire family.”
Orlando Jones, Actor:
“RIP @TomSherak – A titan in the entertainment industry who made charity & philanthropy his life’s work.” @TheOrlandoJones