Owen Roizman, Cinematographer on ‘The French Connection’ and ‘The Exorcist,’ Dies at 86


Los Angeles Daily Chronicle

Owen Roizman, the five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer who partnered with director William Friedkin on the gripping movie classics The French Connection and The Exorcist, has died. He was 86.

Roizman, who also teamed with director Sydney Pollack on five films, including Three Days of the Condor (1975), Absence of Malice (1981) and Tootsie (1982) — when he somehow made Dustin Hoffman look good as a woman — died Friday night at his home in Encino, his wife of 58 years, Mona, told The Hollywood Reporter. He was in hospice care since August, she said.

He received an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards in November 2017. “Film is made up of many tiny, silver particles, and each one of those particles is represented by every person who works on a film,” Roizman said in his acceptance speech. “Had you changed any one of them on any movie, the movie would have looked different.”

Roizman had quite the career, also shooting the taut subway-set The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), starring Walter Matthau; the unsettling suburban sci-fi tale The Stepford Wives (1975); and Sidney Lumet’s brilliant media satire Network (1976).

The Brooklyn native with a background in TV commercials also knew his way around comedies, as evidenced with his work on the mafia story The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971); Herbert Ross’ Play It Again, Sam (1972), starring Woody Allen; The Heartbreak Kid (1972), directed by Elaine May; and Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family (1991).

And he served as the cinematographer on Liza Minnelli’s energetic Emmy-winning 1972 NBC special Liza With a Z.

Roizman’s Oscar noms came for his work on best-picture winner The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973), Network, Tootsie and Wyatt Earp (1994), the third of four films he shot for director Larry Kasdan.

“My hobby was magic, and I’m the best audience in the world for a magician because I want to be fooled. I’m always curious about how somebody did something,” he said in a podcast on the American Society of Cinematographers website. “So I wanted to fool people in how I would light something.”

The French Connection was only the second film Roizman shot (and the first one to hit theaters). Friedkin, after firing his original cinematographer, saw something in Roizman’s work on the low-budget 1970 drama Stop and sought him out for the gritty story centered around New York City narcotics cop Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman).

Friedkin said, ‘I like your work in it; what I want to do … what I want it to be is a realistic street photography sort of thing,’” Roizman recalled in a 2011 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I said, ‘Why not? I should be able to do anything you tell me. I’m a cinematographer.’ He liked my attitude.

“I just was trying to give it a look, something that would enhance it. We talked about camera movement and how we wanted to have an uneasy feeling in certain scenes and definitely that realism all the time.”

The French Connection is, of course, famed for its six-minute car chase through the streets (and under the elevated Stillwell Avenue subway line) in Brooklyn. Roizman said the whole thing took about five weeks to film (they were able to shoot only between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.).

“It was done in two different ways,” Roizman said in the Times interview. “Three cameras were used inside the car, including a camera on the dashboard that would look out through the windshield and one over the driver’s shoulder. From the outside, we had five cameras. We broke it down to five stunts, and the rest of it was just bits and pieces.”

Somewhat more simply, Roizman spray-painted a lightbulb in a bar scene to create a seedy atmosphere.

The harrowing exorcism scene in The Exorcist also was shot in New York, in a studio on 10th Avenue. Friedkin wanted Regan’s (Linda Blair) sparsely lit bedroom cold enough to see the actors’ breath, and the crew reduced the temperature to 20 degrees below zero each morning.

“The room had to be refrigerated with air conditioners, but since the ACs were extremely noisy, we had to turn them off while we did the lighting, turn them back on to cool off the room, and off again while we did the actual shooting,” Roizman said in 2011 when he was honored at the Ojai Film Festival. “Needless to say, the scene took a long time to shoot.”

In 1976, Roizman left New York for Los Angeles, where he established his own TV commercial production company. He took a six-year break to tend to that business before returning to feature filmmaking in 1989.

Born on Sept. 22, 1936, Roizman grew up surrounded by cameras. His father, Sol, was a newsreel photographer for Fox Movietone News and a camera operator on TV’s Sgt. Bilko, and his Uncle Morrie served as a film editor on several documentaries.

During summers while away from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, Roizman worked at a camera rental company in New York, and he learned about lenses and how to thread film. After graduation, he assisted Hungarian cinematographer Akos Farkas and shot commercials for a New York firm that also employed future Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis. This led to the job on Stop, which shot in Puerto Rico on a mere $300,000 budget.

On Tootsie, about an actor (Hoffman) who impersonates a woman to get a part on a TV soap opera, Roizman joked that “Dustin wanted to look as good as [co-star] Jessica Lange.”

“I tried to design the lighting for each scene that Dustin was in with Jessica so that when I lit him for the softness that would work, I did the same kind of lighting for her so that it didn’t look like I was cheating for one or the other,” he explained in a story for American Cinematographer magazine. “I used the same amount of diffusion for both of them, so it would intercut well. And it worked out.”

His collaborations with Pollack also included The Electric Horseman (1979) and Havana (1990).

Roizman also shot The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976), directed by Irvin Kershner, and the ill-fated Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), and he also worked with Kasdan on I Love You to Death (1990), Grand Canyon (1991) and French Kiss (1995).

He paired with director Ulu Grosbard for the Hoffman starrer Straight Time (1978) and True Confessions (1981) and with Harold Becker for The Black Marble (1980), Taps (1981) and Vision Quest (1985).

In 1997, Roizman served as ASC president and received the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

In addition to his wife, survivors include his son, Eric, who did second assistant camera with his dad on Wyatt Earp and has operated a camera on several TV series, including Monk, Justified and The Last Man on Earth, and sister Frankie.

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