"Spider-Man" producer Laura Ziskin dies of cancer

Producer Laura Ziskin arrives at the 2011 Producers Guild Awards in Beverly Hills, California. (REUTERS)

Laura Ziskin, the Hollywood producer who helped turn "Pretty Woman" heroine Julia Roberts into a star and brought "Spider-Man" to the big screen, died on Sunday after a public battle with breast cancer. She was 61.

According to a statement from Sony Pictures, where her production company was based, Ziskin died at her Los Angeles home after fighting the disease for seven years.

In 2008 Ziskin, along with other entertainment notables including newswoman Katie Couric, co-founded Stand Up To Cancer, an advocacy group for cancer research. Later that year - and again last September - Ziskin produced all-star telethons that aired live on the major U.S. networks.

In addition to making movies, Ziskin also produced the Academy Awards broadcast twice, and served as president of Fox 2000 Pictures, a feature film division of 20th Century Fox.

She was perhaps best known for producing the three "Spider-Man" movies starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. The trilogy grossed $2.5 billion at the worldwide box office. The franchise is currently being overhauled with a new cast and a focus on the superhero's early years.

Among the films Ziskin championed at Fox 2000 was the searingly brutal drama "Fight Club," starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. Following an advance screening that left other studio executives bewildered and angry, Ziskin boldly proclaimed it was brilliant, according to author Sharon Waxman's "Rebels on the Backlot."

Still she did blanch at one comical line - "I want to have your abortion - and begged director David Fincher to replace it. He reluctantly agreed, but the new line was even more grotesque and she begged him to revert to the old line. He refused, according to the book.

Ziskin, a Los Angeles native who started out as a personal assistant, started making features in the mid-1980s. She teamed with actress Sally Field to produce "Murphy's Romance," a 1985 comedy-drama for which James Garner received an Oscar nomination.

She hired hot young stars Kevin Costner for "No Way Out" (1987) and Dennis Quaid for "D.O.A." (1988), and helped transform Roberts into Hollywood's biggest sensation with "Pretty Woman," the 1990 smash which she executive produced.

Ziskin rescued legendary Hollywood scribe Buck Henry ("The Graduate") from a long dry spell by recruiting him to write the adaptation for "To Die For," a dark comedy directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Nicole Kidman.

By the time it was released in 1995, Ziskin was ensconced at Fox 2000 where she also oversaw such films as "Courage Under Fire," "One Fine Day," "Soul Food" and "The Thin Red Line."

In 2002, she became the first woman to produce the Oscar broadcast solo. The show, presented for the first time at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, also marked the first Oscarcast appearance of the Cirque du Soleil acrobatic troupe. She also produced the 2007 ceremony.

She was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, and underwent a mastectomy, chemotherapy, a stem-cell transplant and radiation. The cancer returned in 2009, having spread to her liver and bones.

Sony Pictures said a memorial would be planned. Ziskin is survived by her husband Alvin Sargent, an Oscar-winning screenwriter ("Ordinary People," "Julia") who collaborated on the "Spider-Man" films; and a daughter from her first marriage.

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