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Remembering Tom Sherak

Tom Sherak, as many have noted in the days since he died way too young at age 68, was one of the good guys. You can read some of the voluminous coverage about his impact on Los Angeles and on Hollywood as an executive at Fox, as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as L.A.'s first Film Czar, and as a devoted philanthropist and fundraiser via Deadline, the Los Angeles Times, The Wrap, and Anne Thompson.

I wanted to tell just one more small story about him. Last September, Sherak welcomed me into his doctor's office, where he was getting a course of chemotherapy. He'd been fighting his battle with prostate cancer for more than a decade, I knew. At the time, I was writing a profile of a cancer researcher named David Agus, who happened to be Sherak's physician. I'd asked Agus if I could sit in on a visit with a patient. Little did I know that Sherak would be the one who volunteered. 

I had known Sherak for years—as a source, he'd helped me learn the ins and outs of writing about Hollywood when I was just a beginner, and he was always available to tell me whether something I was writing was far-fetched or simply wrong. I'd called upon him more than once to explain or debunk a theory or a tip I'd received. Now, he'd agreed to help me understand something else—something far more personal. When I walked into the room where he was already hooked up to an IV, I thanked him and his wife, Madeleine, for letting me be a fly on the wall. He responded in classic Sherak style. This was important, he said. People needed to know more about this devastating disease and its treatment. If he could help with that, he wanted to try.

While the drugs he was receiving were, at that point, working, they had taken a lot out of him, and he was frank with Dr. Agus about his desire to maintain his quality of life while also trying to beat back the disease. Here's an excerpt from the Wired story (it ran in the January 2014 issue) that describes what happened:

It’s in the examination room that I finally see, up close, what drives [Agus]. Today one of his patients is Tom Sherak, a longtime studio executive and former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Sherak, 68, has been fighting prostate cancer since 2001. For five years another doctor kept the disease in check, but in 2006, when the cancer grew more aggressive, Sherak’s friends told him to contact Agus. Sherak is no whiner, but he admits that the disease has taken its toll: Chemo robs him of his energy, his sex drive, sometimes even his will.

Agus is treating Sherak with Taxotere, a drug that interferes with cell division. It’s powerful stuff—after each treatment (Sherak’s on his fifth) he can do little but lie in a recliner for at least a week. As the chemo enters his body via an IV drip, Sherak—in a white hospital gown, with a blanket tucked snugly around his lower half—appears upbeat, at least at first.

“Are we doing a good job or what?” he asks as Agus takes a seat next to him. The doctor smiles and squeezes Sherak’s ankle. The news is good: The aggressive cells are in retreat. But instead of looking overjoyed, the patient’s face clouds over.

“We’re stopping after six treatments,” Sherak says, locking eyes for a moment with his wife, who is sitting on a chair near his feet.

“OK,” Agus responds. “Things are looking good.”

“I need to stop at six,” Sherak repeats.

“That’s fine. You’ve got to listen to your body,” Agus says, his voice calm, but it’s impossible to ignore the anxious question that hangs in the air. Would a seventh cycle prolong this man’s life? Or an eighth?

“I need a break,” Sherak says. There are tears in his eyes. “I need to see what my body will come back to.”

At this Agus throws up his hands in faux exasperation. “It’s like that movie where they say, ‘You had me at hello,’” he says gently. But then he adds, “I’m there. I agree. We don’t have an algorithm for how many cycles to give, but we’re in a good spot. No matter where we stop now, I’m comfortable.”

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I have no idea how many cycles Sherak and his doctor ultimately decided were best for him. What I do know is that Sherak faced this frightening experience with class and humility and grace and a sense of humor. That day, while I sat with him, he even gave me a story idea—he'd been working with Mark Burnett and Roma Downey on their upcoming feature film, Son of God. There was a great story there, he said. (He was right: I wrote it for our February issue).

When I heard he'd passed, I reached out to Patrick Goldstein, a former colleague from my days at the Los Angeles Times who I knew had known Sherak well. I heard back on the morning of Sherak's funeral, which Goldstein had attended. Here is what he wrote:

Tom was different from most people in the industry because even though he had been a top studio executive and president of the motion picture Academy, his life didn't really revolve around show business. And more importantly, his emotional gratification didn't come from show business. What really mattered to him was his family, his friends and his charity work. He used his Hollywood contacts to help raise money for his MS charity, but it was the charity work that gave him far more satisfaction than any he got from marketing a movie or taking bows at Academy functions. 

His funeral today at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills was a great example of that. It was a standing-room only affair, probably 1000 people on hand. I had to park four blocks away because the temple parking lot was full.

There were tons of people from showbiz in attendance (Alan Horn, Dick Cook, Amy Pascal, Jim Gianopulos, Barry Meyer, Joe Roth and Brad Grey), but the people who got up and spoke were Tom's family and his rabbi, not his Hollywood cronies.

In Hollywood, when people are out of work, their phone stops ringing. But if someone was a friend of Tom's and lost a studio job or couldn't sell a script, they discovered that their phone would always be ringing, and it would be Tom on the line. Maybe he knew of a job opportunity, maybe he'd just take them to lunch or a Dodger game, but he was always there for people when they needed a friend.