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Hollywood's Big Knight Arrives

February 23, 2012 By:
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They've got mail: AMPAS President Tom Sherak awards members of PriceWaterhouseCoopers praise as they sort out final ballots. Photo by Greg Harbaugh/AMPAS

Bucks County's Tom Sherak -- screen saver?

With Oscar putting on his top hat to top off movie awards season this Sunday night, the president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences -- formerly of Yardley -- may deserve an award himself for his picture-perfect way of handling a brouhaha over bias that had Hollywood hysterical for days late last year.

When Eddie Murphy gave up his hosting role in sympathy with his buddy, Oscar producer Brett Ratner -- dismissed late last year over insensitive gay and sexually charged remarks he made -- well, who ya going to call -- besides Billy Crystal?

The envelope, please: Tom Sherak?

"There are bumps in the road," Sherak calmly explains of what was actually a pothole of a problem.

"It's business as usual."

Business as usual? Hollywood?Easy for him to say. Solving a mess with millions watching -- Oscar's global audience for the broadcast, which begins at 8:30 p.m., on 6ABC, is typically in the hundreds of millions -- requires dexterity, depth and dedication: the 3D vision that defines the Academy's president since he took over the post in 2009. (He has been a board governor since 2003.)

In a 40-year career, Sherak has seen it all -- not just the Oscar-nominated pictures each year. He also has served in major executive roles with such studios as 20th Century Fox, Revolution Studios and Paramount Pictures.

Unlike The Artist, a major contender for Oscar gold this Sunday, Sherak understands that silence is not golden; action is.

And while some academy members' actions may occasionally mark them as descendants of cave dwellers -- road warrior Mel Gibson's path of self-destruction? -- Sherak and governors use diplomacy not derringers to deal with off-screen antics.

"We don't censor anyone if that member has not done something illegal," he says. "We are firm believers in free speech."

Sherak talks freely of the happy time he spent in Philly and Cherry Hill, N.J., working for General Cinemas Corp., beginning a six-year tour in 1977. "We moved around a lot," he says of the peripatetic motion picture exec lifestyle that had him and his family change towns "eight times in 10 years."

"I promised my wife that the next job I'd get, we'd buy a house; we had been living out of apartments."

Yardley, Pa., became his brand new back yard, "and I commuted for six years to New York, each day, 2 hours and 20 minutes" round trip.

But there was time left for synagogue activity, and he became a mover/shaker with Shir Ami in Newtown. Although some congregants wanted to sing Hail to the Chief, the man who would not be king felt more comfortable serenaded with something a little less official. "I told them I'll be president only if there's no board," he recalls of his offer he knew they could refuse.

"I said I'll run the synagogue if left alone. You know," he says with a chuckle, "Mel Brooks said it best: 'It's good to be king.' "

Still, his involvement -- and that of his wife, Madeleine -- is recalled affectionately by the congregation's Rabbi Elliot Strom, the then-newly hired religious leader. A personal friend of the couple, Strom hails both for being "magnetic people -- Tom especially; I have never met anyone so upbeat, hopeful and optimistic."

And realistic: "I would have gotten frustrated running a synagogue," concedes Sherak.

A hallowed place of worship more difficult to manage than Hollywood's halls of idol worship? "Yes!" he affirms.

But then, even when it came to the Academy of Motion Pictures, Sherak chose not to run. The reluctant president? "It wasn't really something I wanted" or campaigned for, says the man "who happened to be treasurer at the time" when he was nominated.

"I was even going to withdraw my name."

Who is he, the Wendell Willkie of Movieworld? So why was he elected? Because, besides his talent, Sherak was a sure thing when it came to lightening the load. As one exec regaled, with word getting back to Sherak, "Tom makes me laugh."

A good sense of humor is needed when the slings and arrows are pointed at the best picture list, elasticized to 10 last year and nine this season.

On Sherak's top nine list, he hops from Hollywood to -- television? Indeed, ABC-TV is developing a comedy focusing on Sherak's extended family: We'll Be Out by Christmas -- maybe Chanukah was already taken as a title -- revolves around parents whose daughter and husband move in with them while the son-in-law studies for an MBA.

Sherak says he's not in the fact-based picture: "The project belongs to my wife and son," he says of Madeleine and William.

And who belongs more to Oscar than classic hot host Billy Crystal? "He is the Jewish Bob Hope."

But then Sherak is a classic contender for best movie man all around. So says Irv Lomis, formerly exec vice president of Budco theaters, who knows Sherak for some 30 years.

"Always a gentleman, he knew his films," recalls Lomis, himself a prominent movie exec whose past looms large in local history.

"This is a man who could talk about film all day." But he was more than talk. "He is one of God's chosen people. He's been like my rabbi," says Lomis, currently a consultant for the movie business.

Sherak himself has his own idylls, as well as movie idols. As a onetime major studio executive, he currently consults for Marvel Studios and Relativity Media -- and marvels at some stars who are always willing to face life chin up.

"I saw Spartacus seven times," he notes proudly, "and fell in love with it and Kirk Douglas," its dynamic dimpled Jewish star playing slave extraordinaire.

"Many years later, I was working with Michael," Kirk's award-winning son, "who was starring in Romancing the Stone, and told him that his father was my idol. And Michael said to me, 'I'll introduce you to my father.' "

Years later, he did. It was a Kodak Theatre moment: "Here I am with my arm around Kirk Douglas, posing for a picture, and I said, under my breath, 'Mr. Douglas, you are my idol.' I told him that I had seen Spartacus seven times.

" 'Tom, did you pay?'

" 'I paid seven times.'

" 'Then I am your idol,' he said with a smile.

"And then after the photo, we faced each other and I said, to Kirk Douglas, 'I am Spartacus!' "

"Then he turned to me and smiled: 'No, Tom.

" 'I am Spartacus!' "

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