Ralph Woolsey, an Emmy-winning cinematographer who worked on such series as Batman and It Takes a Thief and films including The Iceman Cometh and The Great Santini, has died. He was 104. The American Society of Cinematographers, which gave him its career award in 2003, said he died March 23 at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills.
The ASC described Woolsey as a consummate technician whose Hollywood career paralleled the birth and early evolution of television cinematography, including the transition from black-and-white to color. Among the many series he shot were Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip — for which he earned Emmy noms in 1959 and 1960, respectively — Batman and Mister Roberts. He won the 1968 Emmy for It Takes a Thief, starring Robert Wagner.
Born on New Year’s Day 1914, in Oregon, the first movies Woolsey saw were silent. He began his career while a student at the University of Minnesota, making conservation films for the state and industrials for Bell Aircraft; some of the latter were used to train U.S. Air Force personnel during World War II.
He moved to Los Angeles after the war and worked at Technicolor and at Photo Research Corp., where company founder Karl Freund was developing specialized light meters. “Every meter was custom-calibrated based on a particular studio lab’s processing methods,” Woolsey told American Cinematographer. By 1950, we was teaching cinematography at USC, a job he kept for seven years.
Woolsey worked on a handful of films during the 1950s before segueing to the nascent TV world, working on such earty series as Bourbon Street Beat, Colt .45 and The Roaring 20’s. By the late-’50s and into the ’60s he was working steadily in series TV.
In 1966, Woolsey worked on the first season of Batman, the cartoony but enduring slapstick series featuring the Dynamic Duo of Adam West and Burt Ward. He also shot such 1960s series as Mister Roberts, The Name of the Game and The Tammy Grimes Show.
By 1970, Woolsey had refocused on features, and as the decade unfolded he was the DP on such films as the Bill Cosby-Raquel Welch yarn Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976) and the Sam Elliott starrer Lifeguard (1976). He also was director of photography on John Frankenheimer’s The Iceman Cometh (1973), Robert Duvall film The Great Santini (1979) and the 1980 George Burns sequel Oh, God! Book II, which was his last feature credit.