Phil Hymes, Longtime 'Saturday Night Live' Lighting Director, Dies at 96

Phil Hymes OBIT - Getty - H 2019
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He started at NBC in 1951, was there for the beginning of the 'Today' program and won Emmys 53 years apart.

Phil Hymes, the longtime lighting director for Saturday Night Live who began with the show in its inaugural 1975-76 season and won Emmy Awards 53 years apart, has died. He was 96.

Hymes died Monday in a New York hospital from cancer complications, his granddaughter, Laura, told The Hollywood Reporter.

On Twitter, Late Night With Seth Meyers producer Mike Shoemaker called Hymes ornery and opinionated and truly hilarious." He also worked on Late Night and on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon until recently. (He did not work on every season of SNL.)

Hymes became the oldest person to win an Emmy when he was honored (along with Geoff Amoral and Rick McGuinness) in September for outstanding lighting design/lighting direction for a variety series on the Kevin Hart-hosted episode of SNL.

In 1965, he received his other Emmy for lighting The Magnificent Yankee, a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation that had Alfred Lunt playing Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes.

"If I'd have known it was going to come at this frequency, I would have gotten a bigger display cabinet," Hymes joked after making his way from the seats to the podium at L.A.'s Microsoft Theater for his acceptance speech. The 53 years between Emmys, coming after his 13th career nomination, made for another record.

"He just had the best eye for lighting. The best. He was truly a master of his craft. One of the most talented and brutally honest people I'll ever meet," Fallon said in a statement. "I wish I could have one more drink with him (Macallan 18) and have him tell me to take my freaking hat off during blocking. (Of course, he didn’t say 'freaking.') Guests of The Tonight Show would often compliment our lighting. That was Phil Hymes. I'm gonna miss that rascal."

"Phil was at the creative center of SNL from the day he arrived in 1976," SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels added. "His taste, wit and style imbued the show with an elegance that defined the look of SNL from its earliest days to the way it looks today. He was a force to be reckoned with, and his presence and strength were something I came to rely on. He will be missed, but if God has him now, despite all the arguing, heaven will be much better lit."

Hymes left New York University, where he was studying chemistry, to pursue acting in the theater, but he changed course to join the U.S. Army during World War II, serving as a master sergeant in the Signal Corps.

Back home, he graduated from Adelphi University in 1949 and started at NBC in 1951, when he designed the lighting for founding Today show host Dave Garroway.

His résumé also included Your Hit Parade; The Bell Telephone Hour; Sing Along With Mitch; Tony Awards telecasts; the soap opera The Doctors; Kids in the Hall; other Late Night shows hosted by Conan O'Brien and Fallon; and the live 2010 episode of 30 Rock.

Hymes was doing the lighting on SNL on Oct. 3, 1992, when Irish singer Sinéad O'Connor performed as the musical guest and stunned producers by ripping up a photograph of Pope John Paul II to protest sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church.

"Sinéad was no bargain," Hymes told Spin magazine a few months after the incident. "Through her manager, they said she wanted to look pretty. So we had her set and lit a certain way. So then suddenly she just put the microphone in front of her and wouldn't move it. But when she wanted to tear up the picture of the pope, she moved her head so we'd get a shot of the picture.

"No one cares what you do on this show, just don't be sneaky. Do what you want, but don't lie about the camera shots to get the shot you want."

Survivors include his daughter, conductor Janna Hymes, and sons Tom Hymes, a former SNL writer, and Jeff Hymes, a TV producer.