Ralph Woolsey, 'Batman' and 'The Great Santini' Cinematographer, Dies at 104

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Ralph Woolsey

He did pioneering work on 'The New Centurions' and won an Emmy for shooting the pilot of 'It Takes a Thief.'

Ralph Woolsey, the Emmy-winning cinematographer who worked on the first season of Batman and shot films including The Great Santini, The New Centurions and The Iceman Cometh, has died. He was 104.


Woolsey died March 23 at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, the American Society of Cinematographers announced. He served as ASC president from 1983 to 1984.


Woolsey's prolific career included 22 features made during the 1970s, ranging from John Frankenheimer's four-hour The Iceman Cometh (1973) and 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974) to The Great Santini (1979), starring Robert Duvall.


On Richard Fleischer's police drama The New Centurions (1972), starring Stacy Keach and George C. Scott, Woolsey perfected the use of the split diopter, a device on the lens that creates the illusion of depth of focus. It proved particularly effective for the film's taut night sequences.


The original director of photography on Batman, Woolsey shot first-season installments in 1966 that featured the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Joker (Cesar Romero), Mr. Freeze (George Sanders), Zelda the Great (Anne Baxter) and the Riddler (Frank Gorshin).


"I borrowed the Penguin's whistle, and he used to blow it with a sort of 'honk, honk' sound that everybody knew," he recalled in a 2012 interview. "I brought it home and blew it for my kids. The other kids heard about it, and they all came over and were nuts about it. Naturally, I had a hard time keeping it from getting stolen, and I had been warned that if that whistle did not come back the next day, I was in deep trouble!"


The Mr. Freeze episodes were noteworthy for including special-effects sequences that transformed sections of his refrigerated hideout into a "nice, warm 76 degrees" for those who did not suffer from his "reverse metabolism" condition.


Batman also popularized the "Dutch Tilt" camera angle for each villain's lair. "I was not so crazy about it," Woolsey said. "I know what they were trying to do — they were trying to give an off-kilter look to the show.


"But compared to doing things like that later on, just a few years later we had equipment that would make it much easier to do that. It was very clumsy, making those few shots."


Blamed for the slow pace of production by nervous execs, Woolsey was fired from Batman after doing 10 episodes, all completed before the ABC series aired.


Born in Oregon on New Year's Day in 1914, Woolsey began filming wildlife and conservation films for the state of Minnesota, then shot training films on plane maintenance for Bell Aircraft.


He taught cinematography at USC starting in 1950, and got a big break when he replaced an ill cameraman on a new James Garner series, Maverick, at Warner Bros. Television.


That led to a five-year contract with the studio, which had many series in production at one time, among them 77 Sunset Strip, Cheyenne, Bourbon Street Beat, Mister Roberts and Hawaiian Eye.


"You had to take the attitude that whatever the assignment was for the next two weeks, that's your favorite show," he said.


Woolsey received Emmy nominations for Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip in 1959 and '60, respectively, and won in 1969 for shooting the pilot of the crime caper series It Takes a Thief, starring Robert Wagner.


His cinematography work also included The Mack (1973), Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975), Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976), Lifeguard (1976) and Oh, God! Book II (1980).


Woolsey received the ASC's prestigious Presidents Award in 2003 for "unique and endearing contributions to advancing the art of filmmaking." He had joined the organization in 1956 with endorsements from Arthur C. Miller (How Green Was My Valley) and George Folsey (Animal Crackers).


Survivors include his sons James, Richard and Robert.