'Chainsaw' Tommy May, Famed Key Grip in Hollywood, Dies at 81

Tommy May

He teamed with Sam Peckinpah, Billy Wilder, John Frankenheimer, Blake Edwards and Vilmos Zigmond during a long, colorful career.

"Chainsaw" Tommy May, who worked on such films as The Greatest Story Ever Told, Rooster Cogburn and Postcards From the Edge as one of the top key grips in Hollywood, has died. He was 81.

May died Feb. 23 in his longtime home in Granada Hills, his wife of 57 years, Jody, told The Hollywood Reporter. He had overcome throat cancer in 2004, she said.

A strapping former high school and college football player, May earned his nickname for his skill in using a chainsaw to build a camera platform or quickly remove a piece of wall that was in the way of a shot.

He worked on films for such directors as George Stevens (1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told), Richard Brooks (1975's Bite the Bullet), Sam Peckinpah (1978's Convoy), Billy Wilder (1981's Buddy Buddy), Blake Edwards (1981's S.O.B.), John Frankenheimer (1989's Dead Bang), Mike Nichols (1990's Postcards From the Edge) and Tim Burton (1992's Batman Returns).

May also teamed with such celebrated cinematographers as Vilmos Zigmond (on the 1973 films Cinderella Liberty and Scarecrow), Conrad Hall (1988's Tequila Sunrise) and Harry Stradling Jr. (on more than 20 films, including 1975's Rooster Cogburn).

May also collaborated often with writer, director and cinematographer Peter Hyams on such movies as The Star Chamber (1983), 2010 (1984), Running Scared (1986) and The Presidio (1988). May excelled at mounting cameras on ATVs to be used as chase vehicles, and he designed majestic, dynamic crane shots that are commonplace today.

He retired in 2000 after 46 years in the business and devoted his time to flying and tinkering with planes.

"Not often key grips get recognized, but my dad was beyond being a key grip — he was a filmmaker and recognized as such by his above-the-line peers," said his son, cinematographer Michael May. "He was humbled and embarrassed by the attention."

May was born in Hollywood and graduated from Hollywood High School in 1952. His father, Cecil Thomas May, was a member of the studio mechanics local. Among his first jobs was driving a stage crane to move large set pieces on the Warner Brothers lot.

In 1965, he joined the NBC comedy Get Smart and graduated from grip to key grip, then worked on Paint Your Wagon (1969) with cinematographer William Fraker.

"One of the sets [on that film] was made from actual logs, which Fraker needed to open up for a shot," May said in a 2007 interview. May then got out a chainsaw and cut the wall away.

"From then on, I never did another show without a McCullough close at hand," he added.

In addition to his wife and son, survivors include his daughters Monica and Kathy; his nephew, director Bradford May; and nine grandchildren.

A service will be held at 10 a.m. on April 18 at St. John the Baptist De La Salle in Granada Hills.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4

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