Owen Marsh, Camera Operator on 'Ben-Hur' and 'How the West Was Won,' Dies at 90

Owen Marsh
Courtesy Cher Levendosky

Owen Marsh

The son of an MGM cinematographer, he also worked on 'Love Me Tender,' 'The Greatest Story Ever Told,' 'The Towering Inferno' and 'The Brady Bunch.'

Owen Marsh, who served as a camera operator for such classic films as Ben-Hur, How the West Was Won and The Greatest Story Ever Told and for television shows from The Brady Bunch to Murder, She Wrote, has died. He was 90.

Marsh died Sunday of natural causes at his home in Portland, Oregon, his daughter, Cher Levendosky, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Marsh was among the 13 founders who established what was then known as the Society of Operating Cameramen (now the Society of Camera Operators). He served as the nonprofit's inaugural president from 1979-81 and received its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992.

The younger son of famed MGM cinematographer Ollie Marsh, he spent his childhood on movie sets and Jeanette MacDonald picked him up and carried him to safety amid the 1906 earthquake depicted in the epic disaster film San Francisco (1936). His first dog, a puppy, was a gift from the actress.

Marsh would wind up working at MGM, too, doing duty on Love Me Tender (1956) — as a loan-out to Fox — Ben-Hur (1959), Cimarron (1960), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), the Cinerama release How the West Was Won (1962) and Ice Station Zebra (1968), that last one as an underwater camera operator.

In fact, Levendosky said her dad specialized in stunt and special effects camerawork, like "hanging off cranes and helicopters, under trains, on the back of speeding cars, in cages with lions, horseback, under buffalo stampedes … these were stories he was telling his great-grandchildren as recently as six weeks ago."

One of the few people in Hollywood at the time with knowledge of the complex Cinerama camera system, he was asked to help director George Stevens on The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), and what was supposed to be a two-week job lasted 6 1/2 years.

He also worked alongside such Oscar-winning cinematographers as Robert Surtees, James Wong Howe, Milt Krasner and Fred Koenekamp. His daughter said he turned down offers to become a DP himself "because he wanted to be behind the camera more than the promotion."

One of three kids, Owen T. Marsh was born at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital on May 29, 1930. His family had deep roots in show business.

His mother, Elizabeth, was a violinist who played mood music on movie sets during the silent era. One of his aunts, Mae Marsh, worked for D.W. Griffith in New Jersey and came west to star in the director's Birth of a Nation (1915); another aunt, Margaret Loveridge, acted in many silent movies as well; and a third, Frances Marsh, was a Hollywood film editor who collaborated with her brother Ollie on Ernst Lubitsch's The Merry Widow (1934).

Meanwhile, his older brother, Warne Marsh, would become a noted tenor jazz saxophonist.

Marsh's father shared an honorary Oscar for color cinematography on Sweethearts (1938) and shot other MGM films like A Tale of Two Cities (1935), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), After the Thin Man (1936) and Broadway Melody of 1940 before he died at age 49 in 1941 of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was stricken inside the studio cafeteria.

After his stint in San Francisco, Marsh appeared in another MacDonald-starring film that his father photographed, The Girl of the Golden West (1938). He then attended North Hollywood High School and UCLA before serving with the U.S. Army in the Korean War through 1952.

Marsh worked at Technicolor Laboratories and other Hollywood labs before starting out in the MGM matte department, where visual artists took paintings and transformed them into film.

His credits as a camera operator also included the films Papillon (1973), Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), The Towering Inferno (1974), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), King Kong (1976) and Little Nikita (1988) and such TV shows as The Brady Bunch, The Rookies, SwitchDallas, Hart to Hart, Dynasty, Murder, She Wrote and Beauty and the Beast.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include his high school sweetheart and wife of 70 years, Evelyn; son Scot; grandchildren Aram and Yara; and great-grandchildren Omar, Lucia and Vera.

Marsh retired in 1990 and a year later self-published a humorous memoir, Parking Lots I've Eaten In, that lots of people enjoyed.

"If you give a camera operator a camera, he becomes the person represented by the lens," he wrote. "His moves and thoughts are now those of the character in the story. When you can capture this on film, not just what the camera sees but the feeling that's behind it — and transfer that [feeling] to an audience — then you have become a professional and are no longer just a person capturing what's in front of you."