Laura Ziskin has a tough job — and not just as one of Hollywood's most successful producers.
Ziskin, a breast cancer survivor who produced the Spider-Man trilogy, Pretty Woman and the Academy Awards — twice — also co-created Stand Up to Cancer, a special that has to engage audiences while dealing with one of the most sensitive subjects imaginable.
"I joke that I have to make cancer entertaining," Ziskin tells TVGuide.com. "It's a tough challenge, but I'm up for it. And I can promise you our show will be entertaining."
Stand Up To Cancer fundraiser returning in September
Friday's telethon will focus on survivors — including celebrities who haven't spoken out before about their own experiences.
"I think you'll be surprised to see who some of these survivors are because some of them are celebrities who haven't spoken publicly about their cancer," Ziskin says. "I think there's something in seeing that. That's why Lance Armstrong is such a hero for everybody. We can look at him and say, 'He made it.' I think that's going to be a powerful message. There's a lot more music. The show's going to be fun."
Among those committed to appear are Armstrong, George Clooney, Denzel Washington, Fran Drescher, Elizabeth Edwards, Michael C. Hall, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sharon Osbourne, Robin Roberts, Sofia Vergara, Marissa Jaret Winokur, Ethan Zohn, Christina Applegate and Maura Tierney.
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Ziskin, 60, is producing it for the second time. The first telethon, in 2008, raised more than $100 million.
"That was our goal," Ziskin says. "The economy is in a different place now, but cancer doesn't care. We [hope to] raise awareness of what an epidemic and what a Holocaust cancer is because I think people don't think about it. There are no political, gender, economical or race dividing lines. It's an equal-opportunity employer. We hope that people will give whatever they can. We're grateful for whatever anybody can give."
Ziskin launched the initiative with Katie Couric, Sherry Lansing, the Entertainment Industry Foundation and the Noreen Fraser Foundation in 2008 after getting "really frustrated" with the slow progress of cancer research. The foundation encourages scientists to collaborate on research.
"There's no incentive for them to do that. The incentive is quite the opposite because they're competing. As a patient, I don't care who publishes a study where. I care about treatment that could save my life," she says. "We established this funding model, where we would give large sums to teams of scientists with the mandate that they wouldn't be funded unless there was a chance they could improve therapy within three years. That's our focus: translational research."
Stand Up to Cancer special adds to its lineup of stars
More than $83 million of the total raised so far has since been committed to five "dream teams" of researchers and to 13 scientists working against cancer. "Cancer is maybe the hardest problem nature's given us in that it's not a foreign invader," Ziskin says. "Because of technology, we now have the ability to look at, as one of my doctors says, what makes cancer tick. Once we can identify the problem, we have a chance of solving it."
But Ziskin knows research is just one step towards finding a cure for a disease that kills an estimated 1,500 people every day.
"I think ultimately we're going to have to push the government. They can do more than any one organization can do," she says. "If you're engaged in this issue, participate in some way. If we put our minds to it, we can do anything, but we need to have the will. It's as important to me to get people angry — I don't know what the word is — to get them engaged and active. We're all facing so many problems, but this one is that really touches everybody. Let's get cancer out of the closet."
Stand Up to Cancer airs Friday at 8/7c on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, HBO, VH1, HBO Latino, TV One, G4, Discovery Health, E!, MLB Network, the Style Network, Bio, Current TV, mun2, Showtime and the Smithsonian Channel.