The legendary publicist was first diagnosed with the progressive neurodegenerative disease in 2014

By Alexia Fernandez
June 11, 2020 10:00 PM
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Nanci Ryder with her close friend, Renee Zellweger
Araya Diaz/WireImage

Nanci Ryder, a publicist to many of Hollywood's biggest stars, has died. She was 67.

Ryder's passing was announced Thursday.

A close friend of Renée Zellweger and Courteney Cox, Ryder was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, in 2014, and after her diagnosis dedicated her life to helping to find a cure for the progressive neurodegenerative disease.

Ryder launched the publicity company BWR Public Relations in 1987 and served as a publicist for stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Reese Witherspoon.

Nanci Ryder with friends Courteney Cox, Reese Witherspoon
Source: Reese Witherspoon/Instagram

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a nervous system disease that weakens the muscles and breaks down the physical functions of the body, leading to paralysis while the mind remains active.

Ryder was honored with the 2018 ALS Hero Award and presented a speech which was read by her friend, Young and the Restless star Don Diamont, at the time when Ryder was no longer able to speak on her own.

“The one thing that ALS can not and will not take away from me is Love,” Diamont said, reading Ryder’s words. “My love for each and every one of my friends for joining me on this terrible and crazy journey.”

“My love for each of you for being brave and tenacious enough to be here today to stand up for those that YOU love. My love for this wonderful day that we are all sharing here together."

Nanci Ryder and Renee Zellweger in 2005
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

"I never intended to be courageous or inspirational, but according to this award apparently I am. So I ask you all today to promise me that – no matter what – that you will never, ever give up. That is another thing that ALS cannot take away – our will to keep going."

In November 2019, Ryder participated in the ALS Association Golden West Chapter’s Los Angeles County Walk to Defeat ALS for her sixth year in a row.

She wasn’t alone: Zellweger, Cox, Adam Scott and top ages Bryan Lourd, father of actress Billie Lourd, rallied around Ryder wearing “Team Nanci” T-shirts, designed by close friend Vera Wang.

Zellweger told PEOPLE at the time she marveled at Ryder’s tenacious spirit, which she said remained vibrant even though she can no longer control her body.

Her disease has progressed, and she hasn’t spoken in about almost four years,” said Zellweger. “It’s just run its course as it does, but she’s leveled out and hanging in there, and her joy for life remains the same. Any time something new shows up that seems insurmountably difficult, she moves the goalpost. And to stand by her, and all of us here today to show up in support of her, it’s the least we can do.”

Zellweger said she visited Ryder after a months-long press tour for her film, Judy, saying she noted Ryder’s feisty personality was still intact despite the former publicist being unable to move her face.

“I walked over to her and I said, ‘Listen, I know they’ve been sending you my pictures, and I know they’ve been telling you hello from the various places in the world, and I know you’re mad at me because I’ve been gone for way too long,’” recounted Zellweger. “No expression. And I said, ‘I know that what you’re really telling me right now is that I can go f— myself.’ And she giggled. A quiet, wry smile climbs across her face. Yes — that’s my girl!”

“It’s hard to get her to smile and it means the world,” agreed Cox, who was represented by Ryder since the earliest days of her career. “It’s not fair to place something on a smile, but when you do get a smile from Nancy, it’s the best feeling in the world.”

Ryder leaves behind stepbrother, Dr. Stanley Schwartz and was preceded in death by her mother Lee Schwartz and stepfather Dr. Samuel Schwartz. "She also leaves behind her beloved dogs Oreo and Manolo and cats Fluffy, Pants and Thelma and many friends," according to her obituary.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Ryder’s memory to teamnanci.org in support of the mission and vision of The ALS Association Golden West Chapter. For more information about ALS and how you can help, please visit www.alsagoldenwest.org.