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Gordon Willis, the acclaimed cinematographer behind the Godfather trilogy and such Woody Allen films as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose and Zelig, died Sunday of complications from cancer at his home in North Falmouth, Mass., his son Gordon Willis Jr. said. He was 82.
Willis’ credits also include six features with director Alan J. Pakula — including Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974), All the President’s Men (1976) and Comes a Horseman (1978) — as well as The Paper Chase (1973) and The Drowning Pool (1975) and Allen’s Interiors (1978), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Stardust Memories (1980).
Willis received Academy Award nominations for Zelig and The Godfather: Part III and earned the ASC’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. In 2009, he was given an Honorary Oscar “for unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion.”
He was called “The Prince of Darkness” by fellow cinematographer Conrad Hall for his daring use of as little light as possible.
“If there were a Mount Rushmore for cinematographers, Gordon’s features would surely be chiseled into the rock face,” said Stephen Pizzello, the editor-in-chief and publisher of American Cinematographer magazine who was collaborating on a book with Willis.
Willis was at the forefront of a group of cinematographers in the 1970s who were radically changing the way moves were shot. In The Godfather, as pointed out by industry veteran Bob Fisher, he masked Marlon Brando‘s eyes to conceal his thoughts from the audience.
“I still can’t believe the reactions,” Willis said in an interview with Fisher before he received their highest honor. “People said, ‘You can’t see his eyes (Brando’s).’ Well, you didn’t see his eyes in 10 percent of the movie, and there was a reason why. I remember asking, ‘Why do you have to see his eyes in that scene? Based on what?’ Do you know what the answer was? ‘That’s the way it was done in Hollywood.’ That’s not a good enough reason. There were times when we didn’t want the audience to see what was going on in there (Brando’s eyes), and then suddenly (snaps his fingers), you let them see into his soul for a while.”
“No one showed more with less,” Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie said on Twitter.
Later in his career, Willis worked on The Money Pit (1986), The Pick-Up Artist (1987), Bright Lights, Big City (1988), Malice (1993) and Pakula’s Presumed Innocent (1990) and The Devil’s Own (1997).
Willis was born in Queens, N.Y., and his father was a makeup man for Warner Bros. in Brooklyn during the 1930s. Willis wanted to be an actor but soon became interested in stage lighting and set design, and he began shooting still pictures for a stock company.
Willis was assigned to a U.S. Air Force motion picture unit for four years during the Korean War, when he did documentaries and training films. In 1956, he returned to New York, where he worked as a freelance assistant cameraman in television.
Willis was hired by director Aram Avakian to shoot his first feature, the surreal 1970 drama End of the Road, starring Stacy Keach. Irvin Kershner‘s Loving and Hal Ashby‘s The Landlord followed the next year; The Godfather would be his seventh film in a busy three-year span.
In the ASC interview, Willis was asked why so many of the films that he and Allen made together were produced in black and white.
“It was a natural decision for Manhattan,” he said. “I’ve always perceived New York as a black-and-white town. Zelig was appropriate as a black-and-white period piece. Stardust Memories was a retrospective story, and Woody felt it would be nice in black and white. I think he just liked material which went with black-and-white film.”
In addition to his son, survivors include his wife Helen, another son Tim, daughter Susan and five grandchildren.
Burial will take place on Friday at Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne, Mass.
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