“The major difference I’ve found between the highly successful and the least successful (people) is that the highly successful stick to it. They have staying power. Everybody fails. Everybody takes his knocks, but the highly successful keep coming back.”
This is great advice from Sherry Lansing, who became the first female President of 20th Century Fox Studios in 1980 and Chairman of Paramount Pictures from 1992-2005. Sherry’s work ethic and steadfast commitment help explain her success.
Sherry changed the course of history by paving the way for some of the brightest women who followed in her footsteps. This includes women like Elizabeth Gabbler, president of Fox; Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Pictures; and, Ava DuVernay, an independent filmmaker.
When you look back at Sherry’s groundbreaking success, it’s easy to see her intelligence, a reliance on her intuition, and a strong sense of self were also critical for helping her to become an effective decision-maker in the very competitive film industry.
From a very early age, Sherry seemed destined for greatness having set her sights on Hollywood. She was born in 1944 and raised in Chicago, where her father, a successful real estate developer, exposed her to his love of the arts, movies, opera and music. Weekends were spent at the movies and listening to opera music at home, while her father explained the stories they told.
But this idyllic life changed when Sherry’s father died of a heart attack. Sherry’s mother, Margot, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, was a happy housewife who had to make some hard decisions.
“My father died at 42, of a heart attack. My mother was 32 then. She never wanted to be a victim. And that really resonated as a nine-year-old child. And one of the most revealing things was, very soon after my father died – he was in real estate and he owned some modest buildings – they came to my mother, the men that worked for him, and they said, “You don’t have to worry. We will run the business and we will take care of you.” And my mother said, “No, you won’t. You will teach me how to run the business and I will take care of it and my children.”
Young Sherry Lansing Photo credit: Vanity Fair
Sherry knew the last thing in the world her parents wanted was for her was to become an actress.
They insisted she study subjects that would give her the means to support herself. Even though Sherry complied, she didn’t give up quite so easily. Sherry graduated from Northwestern University in 1966 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics, English and a teaching credential. But, by day, she taught math in inner-city Watts after marrying a doctor and moved to Los Angeles. And, at night, she auditioned for acting roles.
It didn’t take long for Sherry to break into the industry with her statuesque figure and blue eyes. She found herself doing shampoo commercials and promoting other products alongside unknowns like Farrah Fawcett. Eventually, this brunette beauty took on small movie parts like Rio Lobo, where she was cast with none other than John Wayne.
Smart enough to realize she wasn’t a great actress, Sherry knew she was insecure and uncomfortable playing someone else. Working on set, she looked for other opportunities for work. Things changed on the movie set for Loving when a producer noticed Sherry’s script suggestions and offered her a job as a script reader making $5 a script.
Sherry loved reading scripts, writing synopses for them and giving her opinion of the storyline’s audience appeal. Sherry worked diligently without anxiety and was soon participating in script meetings. Three years later, in 1975, Sherry was promoted to the head of the script department at MGM.
This would lead to her first feelings of discrimination, especially when it came to salary. Sherry made less than the men at work and when she inquired about the salary discrepancy, she was told she could not have a raise because she was single and without a family to support.
Lansing admits she swallowed this inequality at the time because “that was the way it was back then.” Perhaps that made her more determined, because two years later, she became Vice President of Production at Columbia. Her first film, The China Syndrome about a nuclear meltdown, became timely when the 3-Mile Island nuclear plant had its partial meltdown crisis two weeks after the movie’s release.
Her next film was Kramer vs. Kramer, which won the Oscar in 1980 for Best Picture. This was the same year she made headline news as President of 21st Century-Fox studios. The New York Times wrote, “Ex-Model Becomes Head of Fox.” It had taken fifteen years to work her way up the career-ladder and she hated that her gender made her front-page news.
Three years after becoming President of Fox, Sherry resigned, tired of producing movies that she did not choose. Partnering with Stanley Jaffe allowed her to produce movies she wanted. Her first project was Fatal Attraction which was a huge blockbuster and made men across the country reconsider those one-night stands! She went on to produce hits such as Indecent Proposal and The Accused which won actress Jodie Foster an Oscar. Her movies tilted towards strong female characters and people in the industry now call films that focus on women who get revenge for not being treated fairly, a “Sherry Lansing movie”.
In 1992, Sherry made another “first” by becoming the first female CEO at Paramount Pictures.
She has been involved in the production of over 200 films, with films as varied as Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Titanic and Mission Impossible. Six of the studio’s top ten grossing films ever, were made during her tenure at Paramount. She is the first female movie studio head to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Known for her hands-on involvement with each picture and promoting an inclusive work atmosphere, Sherry gained respect from all quarters of the movie-making world as well as opening the door for other women in the business. Feeling that life is a series of chapters and her chapter at Paramount was complete, Lansing left in 2005 at the age of 60.
Photo credit: Hollywood Reporter
For her next chapter she formed The Sherry Lansing Foundation. A teacher at the start of her career, education is very much a priority for Lansing with a special focus to public education, and encore career opportunities, which as she nears her mid-70’s she has embraced. The death of her mother Margot to cancer has her also devoting support for health and cancer research as well with involvement with the Stand Up to Cancer initiative.
In 2007, Sherry was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Married to director William Friedkin since 1991, Sherry enjoys time with her husband when not busy with her foundation and dreaming of her next chapter.