I’m surprised to see that, outside of a paid death notice in the Los Angeles Times and a post on the Archive of American Television’s Facebook page on Friday, no one has yet published an obituary for Gerald Perry Finnerman.  Finnerman, who died on April 6, was the primary director of photography for Star Trek and then, two decades later, Moonlighting.  In between came Night Gallery, The Bold Ones, Kojak, Police Woman, and a number of TV movies (he won an Emmy for 1978’s Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women).

Star Trek was Finnerman’s debut as a DP.  Prior to his voyage on the Enterprise, Finnerman had been a camera operator for the legendary cinematographer Harry Stradling (Suspicion, Johnny Guitar, A Face in the Crowd, My Fair Lady), who personally recommended him to Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.  Finnerman had another mentor in the family: his  the British-born Perry Finnerman, was also a director of photography who spent his last few years (he died in 1960) shooting episodes of Maverick, Lawman, and Adventures in Paradise.

It’s difficult to write about cinematographers without looking at the work again, but the imagery of the original Star Trek is certainly stamped on my brain.  Idiots chortle over how the original Star Trek looks “dated” – they’ve even replaced the special effects with digital upgrades, which look cool but miss the point.  But it’s precisely the look of Star Trek – the costume and set design, the makeup, the visual effects – that make Star Trek special, much more than the scripts or the utopian ideas of Gene Roddenberry.  I love the bright colors and the strange shapes and spaces of the Star Trek world.  The show’s budget meant that the Enterprise consisted of a lot of bare walls – and Finnerman wasn’t afraid to shine an orange or green or fuchsia lamp on them, for no particular reason.

On his website, the television director Ralph Senensky enumerates Finnerman’s technical skill far more precisely than I could.  For the episode “Metamorphosis,” Senensky writes, “it was Jerry who decided the sky would be purple” on that week’s alien planet.  Finnerman introduced Senensky to the now-ubiquitous 9mm “fisheye” lens, and Finnerman who came up with creative solutions (like an hanging a rock outcropping at the top of the frame) when the wide lens exposed the ceiling of Star Trek‘s small soundstage.  Senensky describes Finnerman as a DP “who knew how to photograph women,” citing his closeups of Jill Ireland in “This Side of Paradise” (Finnerman backlit her with a baby spot, positioning it so precisely that Ireland couldn’t move off her mark without ruining the shot) and Diana Muldaur in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”

Both Senensky and Finnerman were victims of Star Trek‘s third-season regime change.  Finnerman left to shoot a feature, The Lost Man (1969), after new Trek producer Fred Freiberger asked him to accept cuts in both his salary and lighting budget.  His final association with Star Trek was tragic: Finnerman was badly injured in, but survived, a 1969 plane crash that killed television director Robert Sparr (Batman, The Wild Wild West).  Sparr had worked with Jerry Finnerman on a Star Trek (“Shore Leave”) and with his father on Lawman.

Senensky and Finnerman worked together again on Search and the short-lived TV version of Planet of the Apes.  In an e-mail to me today, Senensky paid Finnerman the ultimate compliment for a cinematographer: “He was not only good, he was fast.”  Senensky added:

Jerry was a very kind guy. He was portly, and didn’t physically reflect the sensitivity that he possessed. On the set he was very quiet, no yelling and barking of orders. Like Billy Spencer [Senensky's DP on The F.B.I.] he got his lights set efficiently (and he set everything, not physically of course but by instruction) and almost effortlessly. He was great when it came to lighting closeups (which I think has become a lost art) ….

Ironically he was hired to do some newspaper series [Capital News] because of his great work on Moonlighting and that turned into a very unhappy experience for him.  The producers constantly criticized his work for having too many shadows; they wanted flat toss it in lighting ….

Jerry loved cars.  He had a station wagon to transport his dogs (he always had two) to the vets.  But he also had a Mercedes, a Lamborghini and a Maserati.

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I’ve been able to lay off the obit beat for a couple of months, but it was a sad weekend for television buffs.  I’ll be back in a few days with some thoughts about Sidney Lumet, after I’ve had time to do what no one else who’s writing tributes to him will do: watch some of his live TV work.

Fall Obits

November 24, 2010

Regrettably, the obituary clipping pile has been mounting again.  As usual, I’m passing over comment on some well-known figures, like the dramatic director Lamont Johnson and Fox television executive William Self, in order to briefly mention some deaths which have been less widely reported.

Bill Bennington, who died on September 26 at the age of 96, was a live director who specialized in event and sports programming.  According to director John Rich, who was his assistant for a time in the early fifties, Bennington directed the first Academy Awards telecast and the unsuccessful attempt of English Channel swimmer Florence Chadwick to swim from the California coast to Catalina Island, both in 1952.  At the time, Bennington was a staff director for NBC’s West Coast operation, where he also directed for Betty White’s daytime variety show.  When ABC began broadcasting NCAA games in 1960, Roone Arledge hired Bennington away from NBC to be the primary director of the network’s football games.  According to sportswriter W.C. Heinz, it was Bennington who cut to the first crowd shot in a televised football game, during a 1952 broadcast of the Poinsettia Bowl.  (Bennington’s death was mentioned in the latest DGA Monthly, and confirmed via the Social Security Death Index.  I haven’t found an obit, even a paid one.)

Lloyd Gross was another live director, a CBS staffer who worked on many types of shows before getting pegged as a game show man.  He directed episodes of the live seriocomedy Mama, broadcasts of Perry Como’s and Mel Torme’s eponymous shows, and live coverage of early Miss America pageants and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades.  His game show resume included some of the most popular entries in that genre: Beat the Clock, Masquerade Party, What’s My Line, To Tell the Truth, and Supermarket Sweep, the 1965 hit that kept David Susskind’s high-toned Talent Associates production company afloat during lean times.  Gross died at 92 on October 16.

Michael N. Salamunovich was a veteran assistant director and production manager who died on October 23 at age 88.  As a staffer at Dick Powell’s Four Star Productions, Salamunovich worked on nearly every series produced at that studio from the late fifties until its collapse in 1965: Wanted Dead or Alive, The Rifleman, Richard Diamond Private Detective, The Zane Grey Theatre, Burke’s Law, The Rogues, Honey West, and so on.  I’ve transcribed the credits of hundreds of those shows, and Salamunovich always stood out for a silly reason: his name was so long that it forced whoever made up the credits to add an extra line to the regular template.  Salamunovich stayed in the business well past the usual retirement age: his last job was as the unit production manager on ER during its early seasons.

Michel Hugo was a tremendously prolific director of photography from the late sixties through the mid-nineties.  Born in France in 1930, he died in Las Vegas (where he taught at the University of Nevada) on October 30.  Hugo did long stints as the DP on Dynasty and Melrose Place, but his credits from his first decade or so in Hollywood contain a multitude of cult items: series (Mission: Impossible, The Streets of San Francisco), movies of the week (Thief, Earth II, The Night Stalker, The Morning After), and feature films (Head, Model Shop, R.P.M., The Phynx, One Is a Lonely Number, They Only Kill Their Masters, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Bug).  I’m going out on a limb here, just surveying the titles rather than going back to the video for a second look, but I’m going to suggest that Hugo may have been a practitioner of a specific look that I kind of miss: essentially realistic, proficient in the stylistic flourishes of the era (your lens flares and your rack focuses), but also unapologetically colorful and brightly lit enough to work on television. 

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I should also note that the links above to the paid death notices for Gross and Salamunovich will likely no longer be valid in a few days.  That’s because the paid obits for most major U.S. papers have been hijacked, in their on-line form, by an outfit called Legacy.com, which firewalls the obituaries (and reader comments) after thirty days unless someone pays to “sponsor” them.  This practice strikes me as rather crummy, to put it mildly . . . especially since I’m beginning to find evidence that the death notices are not even being stored in the electronic archives of the newspapers in which they appeared in print.

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