Robert F. Liu, Emmy-Nominated Cinematographer on 'Lou Grant' and 'Family Ties,' Dies at 94

Robert F. Liu
Michael Germana/Everett Collection/Everett Collection

Robert F. Liu

Born in Shanghai, he came to the U.S. in 1966 and was honored by the American Society of Cinematographers in 2009.

Robert F. Liu, the China-born cinematographer who received Emmy nominations for his work on Lou Grant and Family Ties, died Sunday, the American Society of Cinematographers announced. He was 94.

Liu, who arrived in the U.S. from Taiwan in 1959 and was mentored by a pair of esteemed Oscar winners — director Robert Wise and cinematographer James Wong Howe — shot episodes of other series like The Duck Factory, The Nanny, Hardcastle & McCormick and The Steve Harvey Show during his career.

For the CBS newspaper drama Lou Grant, Liu photographed 68 episodes over three seasons from 1979-82, and for Family Ties, he shot 100 installments of the NBC sitcom over its final four seasons (1985-89). He netted his Emmy noms in 1982 and '89.

When he received the ASC Lifetime Achievement in Television Award in 2009, Liu said: "I never expected to be honored, and it was very fulfilling to receive such an acknowledgment from the people I worked with. My life has been one miracle after another, and this award was one more miracle to me."

One of eight kids, Liu was born in Shanghai on May 1, 1926. He moved to Hong Kong in 1949 and found work as a boom operator in the sound department at Great Wall studios, then served as an assistant to the director of photography on a film shot in Taiwan two years later.

Sponsored by the National Academy of Arts and Crafts in Taiwan, Liu came to the States for the first time in 1959 and studied at USC, where he earned a master's degree in film. He met Howe and Wise, and when the director headed to Taiwan to direct The Sand Pebbles (1966), he hired Liu as first assistant director.

Industry: A Free China, a documentary he directed and edited for the U.S. Information Office in Taiwan, helped Liu fulfill the requirements that enabled him to stay in the U.S., and he ran USC's motion picture laboratory for three years.

After working as a cinematographer at the UCLA Media Center, where he shot documentaries and surgical films, he landed a job as a second camera assistant on CBS' Gunsmoke. He became a camera operator on NBC's Columbo and Lou Grant before being promoted to director of photography on the latter, shooting the final three seasons of the show.

Liu "gradually convinced the producer [on Lou Grant] to shoot more on location and less onstage," he told an ASC interviewer. "When I started, we were doing about five days onstage and two days on location for each hourlong episode. I proved I could make the transition seamless, and by the end of the last season, we were working five days on location and two onstage. That was rare for a TV series at that time."

Survivors include his wife, Ivy, whom he married in 1957, three children, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.