Wednesday, August 1, 2007

More Eulogies

The past several days has seen the passing of several important figures. Indeed, Monday saw the passing of two of the greatest directors of all time (Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni). Beyond these two giants of directing there were three other important figures in their own respective fields: cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, actor Michel Serrault, and television personality Tom Snyder.

Laszlo Kovacs passed on July 22, at the age of 74. He is perhaps best known for his work on the classic films Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces.

Kovacs was born May 14, 1933 in Cece, Hungary. He studied at the State Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest. In 1956 Kovacs and fellow student Vilmos Zsigmond (later the cinematographer on such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter) filmed the Hungarian Revolution as it took place. That same year they smuggled their work out to Austria. In March 1957 they arrived in the United States with the intention of selling their footage, but the Hungarian Revolution was considered old news. It did eventually air in 1961 in a CBS documentary.

Kovacs worked various odd jobs until 1964 when he finally broke into motion pictures. He was a cameraman on the low budget comedy What's Up Front that year. That same year he would work as a cameraman on the American International Pictures movie The Time Travelers. It was also in 1964 that he first worked as a cinematographer. on National Geographic TV specials and the low budget cult film The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. In the Sixties Kovacs worked primarily on low budget movies, some of them (such as Psych Out and The Savage Seven) for American International Pictures. Perhaps his most notable film of this period was the classic Peter Bogdanovich thriller (and Boris Karloff's last notable role) Targets.

It was 1969 that Kovacs received his big break on a low budget, independent picture named Easy Rider. Dennis Hopper had approached Kovacs about the movie, but initially he turned him down. It was Hopper's persistence that resulted in Kovacs being the cinematographer on the film. Following Easy Rider Kovacs would work on a few more low budget films before receiving even greater notoriety for the cinematography on Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces. He would also work on Rafelson's King of Marvin Gardens. From the Seventies into the Nineties Kovacs would work on several notable films including Paper Moon, What's Up Doc, Shampoo, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (on which he was the additional cinematographer), and New York, New York.

Kovacs's gift as a cinematographer was simply spontaneity. It was mostly in evidence in Easy Rider, and the films he made for Bob Rafelson and Peter Bogdonovich. Indeed, for Easy Rider he hit upon the idea of using a Chevrolet convertible as his camera car, the stand for his camera being a piece of plywood held in place by a sandbag in the trunk. It was Kovacs who found the place where they would shoot the scene in which Jack Nicholson's character orders a chicken sandwich without the chicken in Five Easy Pieces. The cast and crew had no idea where to shoot the scene when Kovacs noticed a small cafe. It was Kovacs inventiveness and spontaneity that made him a great cinematographer. In fact, his best work seemed to be on low budget and independent movies where a cinematographer might be expected to improvise.

French actor and veteran of over 150 films Michel Serrault passed this Sunday at the age of 79 from cancer. He was born January 24, 1928 in Brunoy, France. Initially entering a seminary to become a Catholic priest, he left because of the vow of chastity. He went onto study acting in Paris and started appearing in cabarets. He made his film debut in Ah! Les belles bacchantes (released as Peek-a-boo in the United States) and appeared in Les Diaboliques in 1955. He worked throughout the Sixties in films such as Candide ou l'optimisme au XXe siecle and Bebert et l'omnibus. His big break would come in 1972 with Le Viager, but t would be the hit La cage aux folles that would bring him international attention, playing the extravagant gay nightclub owner Albin Mougeotte. Including the movie's sequels, he would go onto appear in such films as Docteur Petiot, Room Service, and Le Fantomes du chapelier (The Hatter's Ghost.

In any language Michel Serrault was a gifted actor. He was particularly adept at comedy, able to play the most outrageous characters with perfect timing. At the same time, however, he was versatile enough to play the ruthless killer, Doctor Petiot, convincingly. He was definitely one of the best French actors of his time.

American television personality Tom Snyder died Monday at the age of 71 after a long battle with leukaemia.

Snyder was born on May 12, 1936 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He attended Marquette University High School there and then Marquette University. He started out as a radio reporter at Milwaukee's radio station WRIT-AM in the Sixties. He later worked at the radio station WSAV in Savannah, Georgia. By the Seventies he moved into television serving as a news anchor at KYW-TV in Philadelphia, WNBC-TV and WABC-TV in New York City and KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. In 1973 Snyder was tapped to host NBC's Tomorrow, a show which aired following The Tonight Show from 1973 to 1982. It was a talk show like no other. Snyder might follow up a hard hitting question with a personal observation. In many respects his interviews played out more like conversations. In between interviews he would often joke around with the show's crew, while still on camera. His interviews were often simply one on one. Over the years Snyder had several notable interviews, including John Lennon's final televised interview in 1975, the first interview with a former KISS member without his makeup (Peter Criss), Harlan Ellison, and David Brenner. Perhaps the most notorious person he ever interviewed was Charles Manson in 1981. Unfortunately, NBC decided that they had to turn Tommorow into a more conventional talk show, renaming it Tomorrow Coast to Coast. They added a live audience and gossip columnist Rona Barrett as a co-host. The end result of all this was the cancellation of the show in 1982.

After Tomorrow, Snyder returned to being a news anchor, this time at WABC-TV in New York. He returned to a talk show format in 1985 at KABC-TV in Los Angeles. The talk show was about to enter national syndication when it was over taken by The Oprah Winfrey Show. Snyder then returned to radio with his own talk show on the ABC network. Following the demise of his radio talk show, he went to work for CNBC in 1992. It was in 1995 that Snyder would return to a national television network. David Letterman, who had long acknowledged Snyder as one of influences, hired him to host the first version of The Late, Late Show. Snyder lasted as the host of The Late, Late Show until 1999.

Being in school at the time, I only vaguely remember Tom Snyder's stint as host of Tomorrow, but I remember him as the first host of The Late Late Show well. What made Tom Snyder's interviews enjoyable is that they unfolded like a conversation. There were no bells and whistles. No routines. Just talk. I've no doubt that Snyder's casual demeanour put many guests at ease. After many nights spent watching The Late, Late Show, I have to say that I am very saddened by his passing.

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