Obituary: Gerald Perry Finnerman (1931-2011)

April 12, 2011

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.


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.

11 Responses to “Obituary: Gerald Perry Finnerman (1931-2011)”

  1. Toby Says:

    The way you described what makes Star Trek special — the sets, colors and lighting, etc. — is exactly what always attracted me to it. Nothing on TV ever looked like that. And whether Finnerman ever saw them or not, the look of Star Trek reminds me of those whacked-out Italian sci-fi pictures from 1965-66.

    One of the real benefits of Star Trek on DVD (not those digital “enhancements”) is that the colors and cheap-o sets are sharper and truer than ever — and we can really appreciate the look they were going after.

    Guess what I’m trying to say is, to me, the show’s a bigger deal as a stylistic exercise than an intellectual one. As you point out, Zinnerman is maybe the chief reason for that. Which means his passing deserves far more attention that it got.

    PS: Zinnerman also shot That Man Bolt (1973), a blaxploitation picture that really rises to the top of the heap.

  2. Thank you, Stephen. Jerry was truly an artist working in a mundane and heartless industry. The fact that STAR TREK forty-four years later is still a viable force is due I think as much to him (if not more) in the face of the fact that both the network (NBC) and studio (Paramount) did everything to kill it. But because of its fans it would not die.
    STAR TREK alone is a living tribute to him, ignoring the other outstanding contributions he made to what was then an infant art form.

  3. Neville Ross Says:

    The network killed Star Trek, not the studio-at least, I don’t think that Paramount did. My beef is with CBS Studios owning Star Trek-they didn’t give a shit back in 1964 when Roddenberry pitched it, and now they own it-yet, won’t even consider a TV show version of it on CBS, Showtime, or the CW.

    Apart from that $0.02 of opinion, I share in your loss, Steve, and mourn Finnerman’s passing as well, for what it means to Star Trek: TOS, to me as a Star Trek fan, and to TV in general.

  4. Neville, CBS was not the network that aired STAR TREK; it aired on NBC. And because of low ratings NBC cancelled it at the end of the first year and only restored it to the schedule after an intense write-in effort by fans of the series. The same thing happened at the end of the second season. And I can attest to the fact that Paramount, which a third into the second season bought Desilu Studio, the original producer of the series, with their stringent demands to the production, were a major factor in the decline of the quality of the series which eventually led to its cancellation at the end of the third season.

    • @Steve: I NEVER said that it was the network that aired it, I said that it was the first network that Roddenberry pitched it to, and that turned it down to air none other than Lost In Space>/i>. As I also said before, CBS now owns Star Trek, but the greedy @#!%^&* who runs CBS and CBS Studios won’t even consider a new Star Trek show (although he’ll consider a new Hawaii Five-0, along with several spin-offs of CSI and NCIS as well as more reality shows!)

      As for what Paramount did to the original Star Trek-I know all of that, but I also know that without Paramount buying Desilu, Star Trek would never have been revived in the way that it has been, no be able to make a comeback if Desilu had just been abandoned. So despite all that’s happened, I suppose that we all must at least thank Paramount for keeping Star Trek alive (or at least seeing how big its fandom was and figuring out how to make money from it.)

  5. bobby J. Says:

    Thank Stephen, that was a fitting obit. to Jerry Finnerman. There are few TV shows that have a visual distinction worthy of the film industry; ‘The Outer Limits’, ‘Naked City’, ‘Kung Fu’, ‘Moonlighting’, ‘Night Gallery’, ‘Thriller’…and he was involved in three of those.

    As for ‘Star Trek’, I don’t bemoan the cancellation of the original. In fact, it was one of the best things that could have happened to it. With just a couple of exceptions, the whole season was a travesty and would only have got worse. Most of the key SF writers had departed. In fact, had it been cancelled in the middle of it’s second season, it’s aggregate quality per episode would have been higher. Rottenberry seems to have been to busy smudging the work of writers whose minds were on a higher plane, ripping of Sandy Courage, and fawning over (and more) every pretty girl that put on a tinsel dress.

    It amazes me that no matter how bad the show got, Trekkies are always bemoaning that the show was cancelled prematurely, even though the kcik from the hit they were getting was being diluted to zilch.

  6. Kevin Layne Says:

    Kudo’s as well to this tribute. Working with Shatner now on The Captains and we were speaking about the beautiful work Finnerman did…specially the beautiful CU’s he lit with so much glam!

  7. jokerswild Says:

    Thoughtful obit, thanks. Just one disagreement that the look of Trek was more important than the scripts … without the scripts you have what exactly …? You’re overstating your case just a wee bit.

    @ Toby: Trek was a bigger deal as a stylistic exercise than an intellectual one? You’re kidding … right? Right? ……. Right?

    @ Ralph Senensky: You are brilliant, sir. Thank you for your work.

    @ bobby J: what’s with the 3rd Season hate? As if seasons 1 and 2 didn’t have it’s stinkers. And “rottenberry”? Really? He invented the friggin’ show. If he didn’t invent the show, you’d have nothing to complain about. So pay some respect. And “Sandy” Courage? Only his friends called him that. I strongly suspect you were not one of them.

  8. Caren Says:

    Thank you for your wonderful words. I did write an obit in the Times. As a relative, I’m learning more about Jerry’s talents through this post. I do remember driving around the Star Trek lot in all his fabulous cars. He gave his saxophone to my son who is now entering a Doctoral Program in Music Composition. I remember him fondly and miss him so much.

    Caren Finnerman Rich

  9. bobby J. Says:

    @Jokerswild: The 3rd season produced ‘Spock’s Brain’ and apart from one or two minor exceptions, was pretty worthless.
    ‘Sandy Courage’ is an abbreviation which even a wild joker should be able to understand. Try dealing with the unethical behaviour of writing lyrics to the main theme, never using them and then taking the residuals. Otherwise it’s just dumb to raise the question and makes the comment nonsensical.
    Thirdly, I applaud GR’s effort at getting the show on the road and it was at it’s apex near the beginning of the first season, most of his decisions after that effected the quality quite horribly.

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