Tom Sherak began his tenure as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences about two weeks before I started covering the Oscars for TheWrap. I think he was the first person I had lunch with in my new job, though I’m sure I was far from the first he had lunch with in his.
But our paths crossed many times over the next three years and beyond, from formal sit-down interviews to late-night calls where he’d good-naturedly complain about something I’d written or answer a question I had.
He was the most accessible Academy president I’ve ever known, to the point where I once told him I was getting heat from the AMPAS publicity staff for not putting in an official request every time I wanted to talk to him.
“Don’t worry about that,” he insisted with a laugh. “If you want to know something, give me a call. I won’t tell ‘em we talked.”
Sherak became the public face of the Academy in a way most previous presidents had not. He relished the role, and it suited him to preside over board meetings, announce the Oscar nominations alongside Jennifer Lawrence and then don an apron to man the popcorn machine at the opening of the Oscars Outdoors theater.
He was always aware of what was being written about him and about the Academy – too aware at times, maybe – but he was also respectful and accommodating, and he didn’t hold grudges. He might give you a hard time over an article, but that would never stop him from returning your call the next time around.
Math wasn’t his strong suit: He begged me not to when I offered to explain how Oscar voting worked, and called me one night to argue after I’d written that it wasn’t proper to celebrate the “10th anniversary” of the animated-feature Oscar just because they were about to hand out the award for the 10th time.
(He finally conceded the point a day or two later, when his wife told him I was right.)
A couple of weeks before the end of his tenure as president, we had lunch again — and he insisted that we do it back at the Four Seasons, where we’d had that initial lunch as we were both starting our jobs. When the conversation turned to longtime Academy executive director Bruce Davis, who’d retired during Sherak’s second term, he grew wistful.
“I think Bruce did what in another world I wish I could have done,” he said. “If you have your health, and your wife has her health, and you are able to retire — that’s the American dream, the way we remember it from our parents. And that’s what he was able to do.”
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If he had retired, rather than being a president and a czar and a consultant, Sherak likely would have spent even more time at Dodger Stadium, hanging out with the team he’d loved since his childhood in Brooklyn. Sadly, chemotherapy sapped his energy enough to keep him away from the stadium for much of last year’s exciting season – so it was a pleasure in September to hear Dodgers announcer Charlie Steiner mention that Tom and his wife Madeleine were at the game after a long absence.
Sherak didn’t know that he’d been mentioned on the radio until I texted him to congratulate him on the on-air shout-out. “Nice having friends,” he texted back.
Whether it was at Chavez Ravine or in Beverly Hills, Calabasas or Brooklyn, Tom Sherak had plenty.