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The Activists

Hollywood is known for throwing big glitzy events and even bigger, glitzier checks at politicians on their California campaign stops. But a portion of Hollywood’s industry figures go above and beyond the call of duty to fight for their beliefs and causes, often leading the march to Washington D.C. to address the issues where they matter most. Profiled here are eight activists spanning the Hollywood industry, who have used their Hollywood connections to not only raise money, but to change bills and legislature in favor of their causes. Read about their impact, challenges and experiences as they took the long road to D.C. to fight on behalf of their causes.

The Crusaders

Name: Jerry and Janet Zucker
Age: 61/59
Current Role: Producers, Zucker Productions (“Friends With Benefits,” “Fair Game,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding”)
Affiliations: Proposition 71, The Science And Entertainment Exchange, Brad Pitt, Christopher Reeve, Michael J. Fox 

 

Name: Jerry and Janet Zucker

Age: 61/59

Current Roles: Producers, Zucker Productions (“Friends With Benefits,” “Fair Game,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding”)

Affiliations: Proposition 71, The Science And Entertainment Exchange, Brad Pitt, Christopher Reeve, Michael J. Fox 

 

When the 11-year-old daughter of Jerry and Janet Zucker was diagnosed with Type 1 juvenile diabetes, little did they foresee the path it would take them on. 

The Zuckers are one of Hollywood’s influential producer couples, and their daughter Katie’s diagnosis forced them to delve into the world of science in order to get answers. 

When the Zuckers saw the effect that insulin had in bringing their daughter back to her energetic self, they were inspired to find out more about the types of insulin and its evolution since its discovery by Sir Frederick Banting and Dr. Charles Best to synthetic insulin that their daughter Katie now uses. 

“We both had such appreciation for the work that scientists do,” said Jerry. “We really wanted to help the science, we became defenders of science in a way, and it took us on a road of doing a lot of things, both political and non-political.”

Stem cell research has been a controversial topic on Capitol Hill. In 1995 under the Clinton administration, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment was passed, prohibiting the Department of Health and Human Services from allocating any appropriated funds into any research involving the creation and destruction of human embryos. In 2001, when President George Bush announced that he would only fund research on the existing 60 cell lines on human embryonic stem cell research, disallowing any new cell lines to be established for research. 

When California state legislature blocked a $1 billion measure to fund stem cell research, Proposition 71 was born. 

Proposition 71, otherwise known as the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act, proposed making stem cell research a constitutional right within the golden state, with particular focus on human embryonic stem cell research. Established by Robert Klein, a former housing developer and lawyer from Palo Alto, Prop 71 was a direct response to federal policy preventing the funding of stem cell research. Klein’s son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, thus leading to his involvement and $3 million donations into the “Yes on 21” campaign.

By voting yes on Prop 71, the state of California would allocate $3 billion in tax money to spend on stem cell research over 10 years, overseen by the newly formed California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

But the immediate issue was to combat the notion of “human cloning,” a common misinterpretation of what was otherwise known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, or “therapeutic cloning.”

“Thanks to Hollywood and our artistic representations of cloning, people think of cloning and they think of growing humans and animals in vats, and it has an unsavory connotation and we knew this immediately,” said Janet. 

The “Yes on 71” campaign saw Hollywood come out to support Klein. The first step that the Zuckers took was to host an event at their Hollywood Hills home for scientists and their Hollywood friends, in order to learn more about stem cell research and its impact towards finding cures for debilitating diseases like Parkinson’s or diabetes. Senator Deborah Ortiz (D-CA) was also invited, as she was a supported of stem cell research, and along with her campaign manager Richie Ross, spoke on the topic to the Hollywood audience. 

The next step of the journey was to get support behind the cause. The Zuckers, who were joined by fellow Hollywood producing power couple Lucy Fisher and Doug Wick ("Jarhead," 2005) who also had a daughter with Type 1 juvenile diabetes, took their fight from Hollywood to Washington D.C. to stand with the scientists. They lent their support to scientists like Nobel Laureate Dr. Paul Berg, a specialist on recombinant DNA, and Dr. David Anderson from CalTech, and met with senators and congressmen. Joining the Zuckers was their daughter Katie, who was 15-years-old at the time. “It was good to put a human face on it,” said Jerry. 

They had a mixed response, often finding supporters that they didn’t initially think would be on their side. 

Orrin Hatch (R-UT) was one of the senators that we saw, and I wouldn’t say we see eye-to-eye on a lot of political issues, but we spent a lot of time with him because he ended up coming out on our side,” revealed Jerry. 

But with the supporters came also the non-supporters, and Jerry relates an incident that Janet describes as “chilly, disturbing,” when Katie approached a Republican senator (who the Zuckers refused to name). 

“Katie said to one Republican senator, “Is my life not worth anything more to you than a stem cell? A stem cell doesn’t suffer, I do,” with tears in her eyes,” said Jerry, the pain of the memory underlying his words. “And he just said “No.” And we were making our case and he got a little aggravated and left.”

Other A-list advocates of Prop 71 included Christopher Reeve (“Superman,” 1978), who became a quadriplegic after a horse-riding accident where he shattered his vertebrae. Michael J. Fox (“Back To The Future,” 1985) also joined the cause as he suffered from Parkinson’s disease. But perhaps the most surprising and notable addition to the cause was actor Brad Pitt, who seemingly had no obvious connection to stem cell research. 

The Zuckers were paired with Pitt through Creative Artists Agency, the talent agency that represents both Pitt and the Zuckers. 

“[Brad] actually had gone to his agent and said “I want to make myself useful in something I believe in,” and we had also gone to them and asked who can be helpful,” said Jerry. “He wanted to use his celebrity in a positive way, in a way that would help.” 

The A-list support and increased media attention helped raise over $25 million for the Prop 71 campaign, and even garnered the endorsement of Republican California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the November 2004 elections, Prop 71 passed with 59 percent of the votes, securing $3 billion to be allocated by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine to human embryonic stem cell research over 10 years in the state of California.

For the Zuckers, their journey did not end there. In 2008, they were influential in establishing The Science & Entertainment Exchange in partnership with the National Academy of Sciences. The purpose of the Exchange is to bring together scientists with entertainment industry players, in order to correctly represent scientific themes and ideas in film and television. The Zuckers are both vice-chairs on the board, and are joined by fellow industry elites such as actor Dustin Hoffman, documentary director Davis Guggenheim and entertainer Seth MacFarlane. Recent projects that the Exchange has been influential to are “Tron” and “Green Lantern,” both films featuring futuristic scientific ideas. 

“We don’t think of The Science & Entertainment Exchange as liberal or political at all, it’s really just advancing science.” Jerry “We try to do this completely apolitically, we think that science is really important for the survival of the world.”

After fighting for Prop 71 and establishing the Exchange in a 5-year period where the Zuckers didn’t produce any films in order to devote themselves to advocating stem cell research, their return to the film industry saw them making riskier choices compared to their previous light-hearted comedies. 

The story that Janet came across was that of former CIA operative Valerie Plame, and how Plame, along with her husband Joe Wilson, stood up against the Bush administration after it was discovered that Lewis Libby, an advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney, leaked classified information that revealed Plame’s identity as a CIA operative. After Libby was convicted, Plame wrote a memoir, “Fair Game,” which she then joined forces with the Zuckers to turn into a film.

“I’m always interested in women doing jobs that you wouldn’t necessarily find them in,” says Janet. “Our bond was that we had stood up for our beliefs and I think because [Valerie] and Joe had stood up to the Bush administration, it was probably important to them that the people that they got involved with would have courage,” reflects Janet. 

But while Plame’s story had all the ingredients for a Hollywood thriller, Warner Brothers backed out, and the Zuckers were only able to find one other studio for the film. Eventually, “Fair Game” was made with A-list actors Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, and released in 2010. 

“It’s very hard to make a movie with a political message in the current environment,” says Janet. 

It appears that the battle involved in producing a political drama has resulted in the Zuckers going back to producing comedies, with the recently released “Friends With Benefits” (starring Justin Timberlake, Mula Kunis) and the upcoming “Mental” (with Liev Schreiber and Toni Collette). 

Referring to her own circle of industry friends, Janet said “I do feel a little bit of frustration and people getting more specific, like we have. One of the things I can say about Hollywood right now, and we’re all feeling it, is that everything takes much more effort that it used. If you want to do a drama, you have to work outside of the studio system – our last two movies have been outside of the studio system, and you have to work twice as hard for everything, so as a result, we have less spare time.”

But despite the frustrations and time constraints with their work, the Zuckers are still actively involved in their causes for science advocacy. 

“I think by virtue of activists, it means taking action, so if you take action, you’re an activist,” said Janet. “If you just sit back and write a check, you’re not an activist. For me, an activist isn’t someone who writes checks.”

Jerry is a little less eager to define himself by his advocacy. 

“I still don’t think of myself as an activist,” said the producer. “My dad used to say, every time you go to someone’s house, make sure you help clean up, leave it a little better than you found it. And it’s just something that always stuck with me. Let’s leave the world a little better than we found it, it’s wanting to be part of the solution instead of the problem.” 

 

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