Laszlo Kovacs, ASC, 1933-2007
July 23, 2007
by Bob Fisher
Internationally acclaimed cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, ASC, died on July 22 at his home in Beverly Hills. He is survived by his wife, Audrey; daughters, Julianna and Nadia; and granddaughter, Mia.
Kovacs’ body of work included the films Easy Rider; That Cold Day in the Park; Five Easy Pieces; Shampoo; What’s Up, Doc?; The King of Marvin Gardens; Paper Moon; New York, New York; Frances; Ghostbusters; Mask; and Miss Congeniality.
Kovacs was born on May 14, 1933, on a farm about 60 miles outside of Budapest, Hungary. His mother was friends with a woman who ran a makeshift cinema in a nearby school on weekends. When Kovacs was 11, his mother arranged for him to distribute flyers advertising the films; his pay was a front row seat at the cinema. Kovacs traced his passion for movies back to that experience.
When he was 16, his parents sent him to school in Budapest with instructions to study hard and become a lawyer or a doctor. He frequently skipped classes to watch movies at a local cinema. In 1952, he was accepted at the Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest, where he developed an interest in cinematography. On Saturdays, when no communist officials were around, Kovacs’ teachers allowed students to watch American films from the archives. He remembered being enthralled by Citizen Kane, even though he didn’t understand English at the time.
His life took a dramatic turn in October 1956, when there was a spontaneous public uprising against the communist regime in Budapest. Kovacs and a classmate, future ASC member Vilmos Zsigmond, agreed that it was important to document the event on film. They “borrowed” a 35mm camera and film from the school, and they filmed surreptitiously while hiding the camera in a shopping bag. When the revolt was finally crushed by the Russian Army, György Illés, one of their teachers, advised Kovacs and Zsigmond to leave the country. They took his advice and began a dangerous trek to the Austrian border, carrying some 30,000’ of film in sacks. The young filmmakers were paid $100 for their footage, which CBS-TV eventually acquired and used five years later in an award-winning documentary about the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Kovacs and Zsigmond were among some 60,000 Hungarians who arrived in the United States as political refugees in February 1957. Kovacs was assigned to a sponsor in upstate New York who put him to work taking passport photos and tapping maple trees for syrup. After a distant relative got him a sponsor in Seattle, Kovacs took a Greyhound bus across the country, taking in the sights. His new sponsor helped him find a job processing 16mm news film at a local lab.
In 1959, Kovacs took a bus to Los Angeles, where he teamed with Zsigmond to help Joseph Zsuffa, another Hungarian ex-patriot, create a short film. Afterwards, Kovacs found a job working in a microfilm lab for a title insurance company. After hours he shot 16mm industrial, educational and medical films, as well as student films. By 1963, he was shooting some National Geographic documentaries, and he also shot his first long-form movie that year. It was a Western that was produced over a single weekend for $12,000; the film was never titled or released, but it was the first page in a new chapter in his life. Paul Lewis, the production manager, introduced Kovacs to a young director named Richard Rush. Kovacs proceeded to work with Rush on a series of low-budget biker movies, including A Man Called Dagger, Savage Seven, Pysch-Out and Hell’s Angels on Wheels.
In 1968, Kovacs shot Targets for a young director named Peter Bogdanovich. Then another first-time director, Dennis Hopper, asked Kovacs to shoot a film called Easy Rider. Years later, Kovacs said Easy Rider was his chance to show the world that America was “a great and beautiful country.” Kovacs then shot That Cold Day in the Park for Robert Altman, and Five Easy Pieces for Bob Rafelson. By then he and Zsigmond were firmly entrenched in what became known as the American New Wave.
When he wasn’t working, Kovacs dedicated a significant amount of time to the ASC, serving on its Board of Governors and as chair of the Education Committee, the organization’s liaison with film schools. In 2002, he was honored with the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award, the ultimate tribute from his peers.
Details about a memorial service will be posted on www.theasc.com when we receive them.
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