Making it big in Hollywood was only one chapter in Sherry Lansing's inspiring life

By Ale Russian
April 28, 2017 11:33 AM
Peter Newcomb / MLB Photos

Making it big in Hollywood was only one chapter in Sherry Lansing’s life.

Lansing helmed Paramount Pictures from 1992 to 2005 and was the first woman to ever lead a major film studio before she decided step away from the movie-making business to focus on philanthropy. The former studio chief, 72, is opening up about her decision to make the change in a new biography on her life, Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker, by Stephen Galloway.

Though the book mostly focuses on Lansing’s life before and after moving to Hollywood to pursue a career in acting only to end up on the other side of the camera, it also delves into her mindset as she approached her 60th birthday in 2004 and realized she wanted more in life.  Lansing — who helped shepherd movies like Forrest Gump, Titanic, Braveheart and Kramer vs. Kramer into production — talked to PEOPLE about the big decision.

“I think life is about chapters and I think that for me, as much as I loved the movie business, I had developed over 200 movies by the time I stopped,” Lansing explains. “After you’ve done something for so long, you do start to repeat yourself and the highs aren’t as high and the lows aren’t as low. I was in my early 50s when I started to find that my passion wasn’t exactly the same and my interests were turning to other places.”

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Lansing with Tom Cruise, a frequent Paramount collaborator, before she stepped down

With her heart pushing her in a new direction, Lansing met with another famous figure who made a career change late in life: Former President Jimmy Carter. The book details her meeting with the former president who dedicated his life to charity after losing to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election and even won a Nobel Peace Prize for his Carter Center in 2002.

But the meeting with Carter wasn’t the only thing that reassured her about the big change — it was also the aspirations she had when she was younger. “I always had this dream when I was young that if I was fortunate enough to have success and fortunate enough to achieve my dream, I wanted to give back,” she explains. “So it was a very conscious decision that by the time I turned 60 I would leave the movie business. I felt that at 60 I was young enough to have a whole new life but not so young that I could wait.”

Crown Archetype

So the top Hollywood player shocked the business by announcing she was stepping away in 2005 — but it was the beginning of a new start for her. “For me, change was exhilarating. The day that I left the movie business I honestly felt like I was 20 years old and I was just graduating college,” Lansing says. “The whole world was new to me and I had to learn new things. Everything about it made me feel younger and more alive and more authentic.”

Now, Lansing has devoted her life to fighting cancer, the disease that took her mother in 1984 and some of her closest friends. She launched the Sherry Lansing Foundation, dedicated to funding and raising awareness for cancer research, health, public education and encore career opportunities, and helped found Stand Up to Cancer, an initiative to support innovative cancer research, and which has raised hundreds of millions of dollars.

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The former public school math teacher also believes in funding public education and helping people over 50 find new careers in life — just like she did.

“The last 10 years have been among the best of my whole life,” she admits. “It’s been a wonderful time. Every day is new and it’s great!”