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Sherry Lansing’s epiphany

"Suddenly, I cared less about a hit movie or making money than I did about giving back. That was the legacy that I wanted," Lansing said.


by Danielle Berrin

July 23, 2008 | 2:23 am

Sherry Lansing<br />
Photo by S.Smith Patrick <br />

Sherry Lansing
Photo by S.Smith Patrick 

By 8 a.m. last Wednesday, when Sherry Lansing took the stage at the downtown Bonaventure Hotel, the women of Hadassah were hollering as if they were in a gospel service.

"Sixty is the new 40," said TV anchor Rikki Klieman to shouts and cheers swirling through the crowd.

Lansing disagreed. "I used to think 60 is the new 40, but now I say, 60 is the new 60!" More cheers erupted from the 1,800 delegates at the Hadassah Convention, who were munching on bagels and lox during a conversation between Klieman and Lansing, gal pals from Northwestern.

"We are younger, healthier -- and, statistically, people in their 60s are the happiest group demographically," Lansing continued. "We're not competing anymore, we're just enjoying."

Lansing has good reason to enjoy the prime of her life: Since retiring as chairwoman of Paramount Pictures and her historic role as the first female to head a major movie studio, Lansing has "shifted priorities" and is now devoted -- full time -- to her new thrill and philanthropic enterprise, the Sherry Lansing Foundation.

As she describes it, on the eve of turning 60, she had an epiphany.

"Suddenly, I cared less about a hit movie or making money than I did about giving back. That was the legacy that I wanted," Lansing said.

Indeed, she achieved her Hollywood dreams, is financially secure and, she says, equally passionate about the new chapter of her life advocating for education and healthcare. Through her foundation, the one-time movie mogul responsible for such critical and box office hits as "Forrest Gump," "Braveheart" and "Titanic" is working with the Los Angeles Unified School District to place qualified retirees in either volunteer or paid positions in local public schools.

For Lansing, turning 60 was not about retirement -- it was an opportunity to start over from a different place. With years of vitality left, she is encouraging other 60-somethings to give back too. Why waste the expertise and talent of successful individuals on golf courses?

Lansing's inclination toward social work has been a part of her dream fabric since she was a child growing up in Chicago. After her father's death when she was 9, her mother chose to learn the family real estate business instead of passing off responsibility to some male friends who offered to manage it. Her mother's work ethic and determination is the source of Lansing's drive and inspiration.

"I watched my mother never be a victim. I watched her never show me her tears, and like she used to say 'pull up her socks' and take care of her life."

When other girls dreamed of marriage and family, Lansing thought of work. In 1984, when she became head of 20th Century Fox, she discovered that being a woman had its setbacks -- but it also had benefits.

"No one knew how to handle a woman. I could be myself. I didn't have to follow any rules. All I did was work. I overworked," she said.

After three decades in the upper echelons of showbiz, Lansing shows no signs of slowing down. In addition to her work with her foundation, she is also on the board that governs California's $3 billion stem cell research fund. When husband and filmmaker William Friedkin was directing an opera in Israel, Lansing went from hospital to hospital encouraging Israeli doctors to apply for California grant money. When she mentioned that Hadassah Hospital in Israel is a leading stem cell research institution, the crowd cheered again.

Lansing is an impressive icon in many circles, but in this room, she was among hardcore fans.

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