MEET THE READER: My Friend Richard H. Kline – A Look Back at the Legendary Cinematographer

Ray Morton shares inspiring and beloved memories of the legendary cinematographer Richard H. Kline. Take a wonderful walk through Hollywood history.


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Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Harris, and Richard H. Kline in Camelot (1967) – Photo courtesy of IMDb

I’m taking a break from discussing screenwriting issues this month to pay tribute to a special man.

Richard H. Kline passed away on Tuesday, August 7, 2018 at the age of 91. Richard was one of the most prominent cinematographers of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. He brought his prodigious talents to many acclaimed and popular films including Camelot, Hang ‘em High, The Boston Strangler, The Andromeda Strain, The Mechanic, Soylent Green, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, The Terminal Man, King Kong (1976), The Fury, Who’ll Stop the Rain?, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the American remake of Breathless (1983), and Body Heat. Kline was twice nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography (for Camelot and King Kong) and received the American Society of Cinematographers Life Achievement Award in 2006. He was one of the giants.

He was also my friend.

We met in 2004, when I interviewed him for my book King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon. After spending several hours patiently answering by questions about his work on the 1976 version of Kong, he then began to interview me. As it turned out, Richard – who at that point had retired from his career as a cinematographer – had recently become interested in screenwriting. He had taken a few classes at UCLA and was currently penning some scripts of his own. Although new to this area of filmmaking, he was very excited about tackling fresh challenge and had lots of questions about the process that I answered for him as best I could. As our meeting came to an end, Richard asked if I would be willing to read one of his scripts and give him my professional opinion of it. Beyond honored, I told him I would be happy to. We met again a week or so later to talk about his work and then just kept on meeting, bonding over our mutual love of movies.

I will admit that when we first met I was a bit in awe of Richard. For long before our first encounter, I had been a major fan. He had shot some of my all-time favorite movies and I was well aware of his significant place in both the industry and in cinema history, so it was hard not to be a little open-mouthed in his presence. However, as I got to know the person behind the luminary, that initial intimidated reverence morphed into a deep and genuine affection and respect.


‘King Kong’ and the Art of Script Revision


Richard was a good and decent man. A loving son and a proud and devoted father, he was warm and friendly; kind and generous; respectful and accepting. Richard was also extremely intelligent, erudite, curious, and enthusiastic. He had a great sense of humor and a great love of humor. He was an optimist – someone who always expected the best. And for a man who lived such a long life and had such a long and illustrious career, he rarely looked back. He lived very much in the present and was always looking forward to what was coming next. In his spare time, Richard was a passionate tennis fan and player; a lifelong surfer and volleyball player; a voracious reader (his favorite author was Ambrose Bierce); a jazz and Sinatra aficionado; and an enthusiastic gardener.

The great love of Richard’s life was his family. The great passion of his life was cinema. Richard was literally born into the film industry. His father, Benjamin H. Kline,  was a cinematographer and director; his mother, Annette, worked in the payroll department at Universal Pictures; and his uncles Phil Rosen and Sol Halperin were both cameramen and founding members of the American Society of Cinematographers.

Richard did not initially intend to follow his relatives into the movie business. He originally wanted to be a lawyer, but after he graduated from University High School in 1943 at age 16, his father got him a job as a slate boy at Columbia Pictures. With World War II raging, it was Benjamin Kline’s hope that motion picture experience would qualify Richard to join a relatively safer photographic unit (as opposed to a combat unit) when he became eligible to join the military the following year. The first film Richard worked on was the Gene Kelly/Rita Hayworth Technicolor musical Cover Girl (1944). After continuing to toil on pictures such as The Return of the Vampire, None Shall Escape, and A Song to Remember, Richard eventually advanced to second assistant cameraman and then to first assistant cameraman before enlisting in the United States Navy in October 1944.

Richard spent his service years working in the Navy’s Photo Science Laboratory in Washington, D.C. and then sailed to China as ship’s photographer on the U.S.S. Los Angeles. Discharged in August 1946, he returned home and was in the process of enrolling at UCLA to begin his law studies when Columbia called and asked him to go to Acapulco to work as first assistant cameraman on The Lady from Shanghai, directed by Orson Welles (Welles also co-starred in the film with his then-wife Rita Hayworth). One of the movie’s principal sets was a yacht called the Zaca, which was owned and captained by Errol Flynn. After spending several months on location making movies with Welles and Flynn, an experience Richard described as “the best assignment I ever had,” all thoughts of a legal career vanished and he chose to remain permanently in the film industry. For the next several years, he worked as a first assistant cameraman on dozens of productions, including It Had to Be You (1947), To the Ends of the Earth (1948), and The Harlem Globetrotters (1951), as well as the 1948 Superman serial and several Three Stooges shorts.

When an industry slump in the late 1940s caused his career to slow down, Richard again decided to enroll in college. Upon discovering the G.I. Bill would pay for him to go to school anywhere in the world, Kline opted for France, where he spent three years studying art history at the Sorbonne. By the time Richard returned to the United States, working conditions had improved and he resumed his filmmaking career. Before long, he was promoted to camera operator and assigned to Columbia’s B-movie unit. Working for the notoriously penny-pinching producer Sam Katzman, Richard gained invaluable experience shooting 108 low-budget quickie features — including The Magic Carpet (1951), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), and Rock Around the Clock (the only film on which Richard worked with his father, who was the picture’s director of photography) — in just six years.

Advancing to “A” pictures, Richard operated for the industry’s top cinematographers, including Burnett Guffey, James Wong Howe, Phillip Lathrop, Joseph Walker, Charles Lange, Jr., Ray June, Robert H. Planck, Henry Freulich, Harry Stradling, Sr., Lionel Linden, and Charles Lawton on a long string of pictures that included Around the World in Eighty Days, Nightfall, Pal Joey, The Old Man and the Sea, The Last Hurrah, Bell, Book, and Candle, Elmer Gantry, Let No Man Write My Epitaph, A Raisin in the Sun, Experiment in Terror, Days of Wine and Roses, Lonely Are the Brave, The Birdman of Alcatraz, and The Pink Panther.

Richard became a full-fledged cinematographer in 1963 when he was hired by producer William Froug to photograph the Mr. Novak television series. After that show ended in 1965, Kline spent the next year shooting several pilots, including the kick-off episode for The Monkees. When a pilot called House of Wax failed to get picked up as a series, Warner Bros. decided to shoot some additional footage to pad it out to feature length and so the retitled Chamber of Horrors (1966) became Richard H. Kline’s first credit as a director of photography on a theatrically-released motion picture. Impressed by Richard’s work on Chamber of Horrors, Broadway legend Joshua Logan hired him to photograph Logan’s lavish big-screen adaptation of the Lerner & Lowe’s musical Camelot. Kline’s marvelously lyrical work on the film immediately propelled him into the front ranks of Hollywood cinematographers. A master craftsman with the eye of a classical painter, Richard brought his considerable talents and technical prowess to every project he was involved with. He was a precise, disciplined, and exacting professional and the on-screen results of his efforts were never anything less than excellent.


The (Only) Four Elements of Screenwriting


Richard was not just an accomplished cinematographer, he was also a daring and innovative one. While filming Camelot, Richard became the first American d.p. to employ flashing — pre-exposing film stock to desaturate the overly-rich hues of Technicolor film in order to achieve a brilliant, pastel look — an effective but potentially risky technique that initially earned him the ire of studio boss Jack L. Warner (who was worried that the pre-exposure could ruin hundreds of thousands of dollars of film stock) until the famed mogul saw the striking results, at which point J.L. became Richard’s biggest fan. On the same film, Richard also became one of the first cinematographers to shoot a sequence (the wedding of Arthur and Guinevere) entirely by candlelight. He pioneered the use of split-screen imagery as a narrative storytelling device in both The Boston Strangler and The Andromeda Strain. Richard attached a clear plastic box filled with green smoke to the front of his camera’s lens to create the polluted atmosphere of the over-populated future in Soylent Green and manipulated the art direction and photography of a color film to create stark black and white images splashed with shocking bits of color meant to reflect the disturbed mind of the protagonist of 1974’s The Terminal Man. He made extensive use of split-field diopters to generate deep-focus imagery in many of his films and one of his signature tools was the “Kline Light” – a hand-held quartz lamp he would deploy just out of frame to add an extra glint to an actor’s eye during a shot. Richard’s creative boldness and innovations made a powerful impact on screen and were highly influential, but you would never catch him bragging about them or about any of his considerable accomplishments because Richard Kline was an exceedingly humble man – quick to credit his collaborators and just as quick to shy away from the spotlight himself.

Richard loved the filmmaking process and he also loved the people who engaged in it. He held all of the folks who made movies – the directors, the writers, the actors, the craftspeople, and the technicians – in high regard. He appreciated their talents, respected their accomplishments, and was amused by their eccentricities (understanding that — while these quirks sometimes made people difficult to work with – they also contributed enormously to their creativity). Richard worked with just about every big name there was over the years — I used to tease him that it would be easier to list the legendary figures he didn’t work with than those he did — and he never had a bad word to say about any of them (well, he may have had a bad word to say about two of them, but we won’t go into that now). He loved the camaraderie of the film set, especially the good humor and the practical jokes. Richard forged tight creative partnerships with many of his directors, working multiple times with Robert Wise, Richard Fleischer, Michael Winner, and Ted Post, all of whom became close friends. He was loyal to his crews and mentored many young members of the industry through the years. A tireless booster of what he always referred to as “the industry,” Richard was a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the American Society of Cinematographers and was exceedingly proud of his connection to both.

Our friendship was an easy-going one. We would meet regularly for breakfast (our favorite spot was the Dupar’s in the L.A. Farmer’s Market, a place Richard recalled visiting on opening day when he was a young child. Richard was a big fan of Dupar’s short stack and he had a crush on one of the waitresses). Sometimes we would go to the movies or attend screenings at the Academy or the Writer’s Guild. On a few occasions I accompanied him to some special showings of films he had worked on, after which he would often participate in panel discussions and q & a’s. Occasionally we would visit museums or attend lectures or exhibits. A few times we even went out to the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena so Richard could indulge his passion for gardening by buying some plants and visiting the flowers he loved so much. And we had great conversations – about everything (life, relationships, the news, politics, etc.) but mostly about movies.


“The End” – Importance of the Right Story Ending


Ray Morton shares inspiring and beloved memories of the legendary cinematographer Richard H. Kline. Take a wonderful walk through Hollywood history.

Ray and Richard, outside of Lenny’s Deli – Photo credit: Ana Maria Apodaca

We talked about new films (Richard liked to keep current) and classics (his all-time favorite was Casablanca). We’d recommend movies to one another (he introduced me to Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and Black Orpheus and I introduced him to Local Hero and Midnight Run). He’d talk about his experiences and the people he’d known and I’d keep him abreast of developments in the present-day industry (which always seemed so dull and corporate compared to the great days of the studio system and to the New Hollywood era in which Richard toiled for most of his career). We’d talk about Hollywood history (me from the perspective of researching and writing about it; him from the perspective of living it). Every minute of every one of these talks was golden.

Four specific memories:

  • One night I was watching TCM and saw that The Lady from Shanghai was coming on next. Knowing this was one of Richard’s favorites of all the films he had worked on, I phoned to let him know. This was only meant to be a quick call, but somehow we ended up staying on the phone for the entire running time of the film, during which Richard talked about Welles and the actors and how scenes were done and what had gone right and what had gone wrong and what it was like to spend time in Acapulco with Errol Flynn. It was like having a private DVD commentary from the most primary source available and it was the single best movie-viewing experience I have ever had.
  • When Richard was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the ASC, he invited me to the ceremony. That was wonderful all by itself, but he also invited me to a celebratory luncheon the day before at the ASC’s Hollywood clubhouse. When I arrived, he told me that there was only room at the main table for him and his family and asked if I would mind sitting at another table with some of his other friends. “Of course not,” I replied and took my seat at the friends table, only to find myself sitting with William A. Fraker, Vilmos Zsigmond, Lazlo Kovacs, Victor Kemper, Owen Roizman and a few others – pretty much a who’s who of the greatest American cinematographers of the second half of the twentieth century. I looked across the room at Richard and saw him smiling at me – he knew exactly what a great gift he had just given to this gobsmacked film buff. (I said nothing for the entire meal – I just kept quiet and listened to these gods of cinema converse, although I did go along when Victor Kemper enlisted my help to steal some cookies from the clubhouse kitchen.)
  • In 2016, writer/director Don Mancini and producer Martha De Laurentiis invited me to join them in putting together a fortieth anniversary screening of the 1976 King Kong at the American Cinematheque. We wanted to have a panel discussion and a q & a after the screening featuring some of the folks who worked on the picture, so naturally I invited Richard to participate. Having just turned ninety, he was starting to have memory issues and so was initially a little hesitant, but finally said yes. It turned out be a wonderful evening. Richard hadn’t seen the movie since it was released and he liked what he saw (“Hey, this is pretty good,” he exclaimed at one point during the screening). He later told me he was impressed by how ambitious he and his fellow filmmakers were back then and by how much they had actually achieved. Following the movie, the panel assembled on stage and both Rick Baker (who crafted the Kong masks used in the film and played the giant ape in the picture) and Jack O’Halloran (who co-starred in the movie) both insisted on sitting next to Richard. Following the q & a, a group of fans surrounded Richard to ask for autographs and express their appreciation for his work on Kong and on so many other great movies throughout the years. I’ve never seen him happier. As it turns out, King Kong was the last film Richard ever saw in a movie theater and I was thrilled that we were able to give him such a joyous night to cap such an amazing career.
  • Reflecting on his life and career, Richard once said: “I don’t regret a single day.” How incredible; how marvelous; how inspiring is that?

Goodbye, my friend. I’m really going to miss you. Thank you for everything. Rest well.

THE END 

Copyright © 2018 by Ray Morton
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