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George Spiro Dibie, the Jerusalem-born cinematographer who collected five Emmy Awards as he shot such sitcoms as Barney Miller, Night Court, Growing Pains and Sister, Sister, has died. He was 90.
Dibie died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles, a spokesman for the International Cinematographers Guild said. From 1984-2004, he served as president of Local 659 and then post-merger as national president of Local 600.
“The numbers fail to accurately tally the thousands of lives he touched both at his work on sets and through his leadership of Local 600,” ICG president John Lindley said in a statement.
Dibie, whose background was in lighting, worked on 1,500 to 2,000 hours of primetime sitcoms and more than 60 telefilms during his long career. He also shot every Warner Bros. pilot for multicamera series during a 10-year span, on shows including My Sister Sam, Head of the Class, Murphy Brown, Driving Miss Daisy and The Trouble With Larry.
A 12-time Emmy nominee, Dibie won his trophies for Mr. Belvedere in 1985, Growing Pains in 1987 and 1991, Just the Ten of Us in 1990 and Sister, Sister in 1995.
Dibie also served as director of photography on the Barney Miller spinoff Fish in 1977-78; on Barney Miller from 1978-82; on Buffalo Bill in 1983-84; on Night Court from 1985-88; on Growing Pains from 1985-92; on My Sister Sam from 1986-88; on Just the Ten of Us from 1988-90; and on Sister, Sister from 1994-99.
In 2008, he received the Television Career Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers and the Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Camera Operators.
“Dibie broke all the rules because he understood that there can be drama in comedy, and comedy in drama,” then-ASC Award Committee chairman Russ Alsobrook said. “He ignored the broadcast engineers’ mandate to make all multicamera shows look bright. George knew how to photograph beautiful actresses, but he didn’t hesitate to use darkness and create gritty images when that was the right visual grammar.”
The son of a Greek father, Spiro, and a Lebanese mother, Helena, Dibie was born in Jerusalem, before Israel was a nation.
After high school, he was hired as a translator for the U.S. Information Agency in Amman, Jordan. When he said that he wanted to work in the movie business in America, his boss arranged for him to get a scholarship, and he and his family headed to Los Angeles.
Dibie attended L.A. City College and then the Pasadena Playhouse — Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman were classmates — where he focused on lighting and directing before graduating in 1959.
While working as a supermarket cashier, he landed a job as a day player on an electrical crew for Fox’s Cleopatra (1963), then moved up to best boy and gaffer on films including This Property Is Condemned (1966), On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970), The Molly Maguires (1970) and Plaza Suite (1971).
He said he learned a lot about lighting from famed cinematographer James Wong Howe.
Dibie’s breakthrough in television came in 1975, when executive producer Danny Arnold hired him as a lighting consultant on Barney Miller.
In a July 2010 chat for the Television Academy Foundation website The Interviews, Dibie described what a cinematographer does on a sitcom.
“You are in charge of the look. Especially the technical look more than anything,” he said. “You report to the director. I want to add that it’s a collaboration — the director, cinematographer, production designer — these are the guys who are responsible for the look … The director directs us, and I bring his vision to the screen — what he has on the brain, how he wants it to look. I do that for him.”
Dibie also was a key figure in the ASC’s Education & Outreach program.
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