Gerald Hirschfeld, the man behind the camera for such classic films as Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe who was the American Society of Cinematographers’ most senior member, has died. He was 95. The ASC said he died February 13 but gave no other details.
Born on April 25, 1921, in New York City, Hirschfeld was self-taught in his craft — mostly by watching movies. “There were no film schools in those days, so I was always looking for new [photography] books, new information,” he told American Cinematographer magazine in 2007. “By going to the movies, I gradually learned the styles of all the top Hollywood cameramen.” He joined the Army at 19 and served at the Signal Corps Photographic Center during World War II (that’s him on the left). While there, he worked with established Hollywood lensmen including Leo Tover, who would become his mentor.
Hirschfeld’s first of 40-plus film credits was the 1949 crime drama C-Man, but after a few more credits for the big and small screens, he focused on shooting commercials at the NYC production house MPO Videotronics. He would become the busiest cameraman in New York, becoming a vice president at MPO and overseeing a dozen full-time camera crews. His reputation for being a relentless perfectionist earned Hirschfeld his first big feature gig on Lumet’s 1964 Cold War drama Fail-Safe, whose cast included Walter Matthau, Henry Fonda and Larry Hagman.
Hirschfeld was working steadily in films by the late 1960s, racking up credits including Goodbye Columbus (1969), Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and a reteam with Lumet on Child’s Play (1972). Then Brooks came calling. Hirschfeld was tapped as DP for Young Frankenstein (1974), the filmmaker’s follow-up to Blazing Saddles. Shot in glorious black and white, it featured many nuanced camera angles and shots, often using sets built for Universal’s original Frankenstein in 1931.
“I was pretty tough, that’s true,” Hirschfeld told the ASC. “But it was only because I was always trying to push myself, to learn to be a better cinematographer. And I expected the same work ethic from everyone around me.”
Hirschfeld went on to lens such memorable pics as 1976’s Two-Minute Warning starring Charlton Heston; 1977’s The World’s Greatest Lover (1977), written, directed by and starring Young Frankenstein topliner Gene Wilder; 1981’s Neighbors with John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd; Richard Benjamin’s My Favorite Year with Peter O’Toole (1982); and 1983’s To Be or Not To Be, starring Brooks and the filmmaker’s wife Anne Bancroft. He continued to work in movies until the mid-’90s.
Hirschfeld also authored multiple instructional manuals about his craft and penned numerous articles for American Cinematographer detailing his work in various productions. in 2007, he was awarded the ASC’s Presidents Award for exceptional contributions to advancing the art and craft of filmmaking.
Hirschfeld is survived by his wife, Julia Tucker; sons Marc, Eric, Burt and Alec; and six grandchildren. Alec Hirschfeld is a veteran cameraman who worked his his dad on Goodbye, Columbus and went on to work on such films as Taxi Driver, The Terminator and Beautiful Girls.