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Gerald Hirschfeld, the veteran cinematographer who shot the films Fail-Safe and Young Frankenstein in beautiful black and white, died Feb. 13 of natural causes at his home in Ashland, Ore., a family spokesman said. He was 95.
Hirschfeld was the American Society of Cinematographers’ most senior member, having joined the organization in 1951, and he received its prestigious Presidents Award in 2007.
Hirschfeld’s first major assignment came for director Sidney Lumet on the taut Cold War drama Fail-Safe (1964), and he brilliantly captured the look of the Universal monster movies of the 1930s with Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) — despite nearly getting fired.
Hirschfeld also collaborated with director Larry Peerce on the gritty, subway-set The Incident (1967), Goodbye, Columbus (1969), Two-Minute Warning (1976) and The Bell Jar (1979) and with Frank Perry on Last Summer (1969) and Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970).
His other credits include another Lumet film, Child’s Play (1972), Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), Mastermind (1976), Dragonfly (1976), The Bell Jar (1979), John G. Avildsen’s Neighbors (1981) and My Favorite Year (1982), directed by Columbus and Mad Housewife star Richard Benjamin.
In a 2006 interview with American Cinematographer magazine, Hirschfeld described how it took some time to get the look that writer-director Brooks and writer-star Gene Wilder desired on Young Frankenstein:
“Mel and Gene Wilder arranged for me to watch a screening of the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein to remind me of the look of the originals. The problem to solve was re-creating that look with different lenses, different film stocks and different lights than they had used in 1932.
“At the end of the first week of shooting, they asked me to stay after dailies and told me they were not happy with the look. I asked, ‘What are you talking about? You showed me Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, and that’s what I’m giving you.’ Mel said, ‘That’s not what we want. We want to satirize that look. We want it to be more than that.’ I pointed out that nobody had told me that. Gene Wilder piped up and said, ‘Mel, he’s right, we never told him that.’ I told them I would try several things that night, and tomorrow they could tell me which they liked best.
“At the next day’s dailies, they said, ‘Oh, this is more like it.’ Then the next sequence came up and they said, ‘Oh, this is even better.’ Halfway through the picture, Mel said to me in the lunch line, ‘Jerry, I’m glad I didn’t fire you four weeks ago.’ I thought to myself, ‘Mel, you’re lucky I didn’t quit.'”
Hirschfeld then reteamed with Wilder on The World’s Greatest Lover (1977) and with Brooks on To Be or Not to Be (1986).
Born in New York on April 25, 1921, Hirschfeld enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 19 and shot training films for the Signal Corps Photographic Center, where he met and was mentored by Hollywood cinematographer Leo Tover (The Heiress).
Hirschfeld shot his first feature film, the film noir C-Man (1949), in just 11 days, then worked on another crime drama directed by Joseph Lerner, Guilty Bystander (1950).
In 1955, Hirschfeld was about to shoot 12 Angry Men for Lumet but was replaced by Boris Kaufman, who had just won an Oscar for On the Waterfront. Disappointed, he shunned the movies to concentrate on TV commercials at MPO Videotronics, where his crew members at the New York-based company included future Hollywood greats Owen Roizman (The French Connection) and Gordon Willis (The Godfather).
Hirschfeld returned to features when Lumet hired him for Fail-Safe. “I liked working with Sidney,” he once said. “He came from TV, and he knew how he was going to cut the film and put it together, because in live TV you do that on the spot.”
Survivors include his wife Julia Tucker (a script supervisor who worked with Hirschfeld on several films); sons Marc, Eric, Burt and Alec (a camera operator on Taxi Driver and The Terminator); and six grandchildren.
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