Owen Roizman, ‘French Connection’ cinematographer, dies aged 86

Five-time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Owen Roizman, who shot landmark films including “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist,” “Network” and “Tootsie,” has died. He was 86.

American Society of Cinematographers confirmed Saturday that Roizman had died after a long illness.

New York-born Roizman, who died at his home in Los Angeles, was awarded an honorary Oscar for his career achievements in 2017, having retired from the film industry in the 1990s without yet taking home an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gold statuettes, despite the many nominations.

Roizman was known for his collaborations with Sydney Pollack and William Friedkin. His film work included “Play It Again, Sam,” “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Three Days of the Condor” and “Wyatt Earp.”

He received his first Oscar nomination for 1971’s “The French Connection” — his second film — which starred Gene Hackman as a violent police detective. After filming the influential Friedkin-directed neo-noir crime thriller, including the famous car chase sequence, Roizman became known for his “gritty” documentary style, a term he found amusing given the wide range of genres at which he excelled.

“Immediately after ‘The French Connection’ I was labeled as a horrible street photographer in New York, which I thought was really funny because I had never shot anything like ‘The French Connection’ before that,” Roizman told the Los Angeles Times in a 2017 interview. “I got a kick out of it. My primary goal was always just to serve the story and to tell the story visually the best way I knew how.”

Roizman, born in Brooklyn on September 22, 1936, grew up with camera work in his blood.

His father, Sol, was a cinematographer for Fox Movietone News. Uncle Morrie was a film editor. After graduating from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, he began his career as an assistant cameraman in commercials and worked his way up to cinematographer.

He got his break in a low-budget 1970 film, “Stop,” which was seen by almost no one — except for a few key people — Friedkin and “The French Connections” producer Phil D’Antoni, who liked his work.

“The French Connection” was noted for its use of available outdoor lighting, which gave it a sense of reality. The groundbreaking chase scene moves through New York’s mean streets as the heavy-handed Det. Popeye Doyle (an Oscar-winning Hackman) drives a civilian car and tries to keep up with the assassin who is trying to escape on an elevated train.

“It was done in two different ways,” Roizman told The Times in 2011. “Three cameras were used inside the car, including a camera on the dashboard that would look 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. For each of the stunts, we had five cameras set up at different angles to cover the whole thing.”

Roizman told American Cinematographer that “the biggest problem there was trying to match because the light was constantly changing. As we ran along the track, another train would pass and block the light. Or we’d go between tall buildings and it would cut the light in the middle a scene.”

His work on Friedkin’s 1973 film, “The Exorcist,” is remembered for bringing a lived-in realism to the supernatural horror genre.

One of the challenges of filming the climatic exorcism scene was to convey the sub-zero temperature of the child’s bedroom by making the actors’ breath appear on screen, he told American Cinematographer.

To get the believable effect, the filmmakers made a copy of the room and cooled it down.

“A system was developed that could rapidly cool the room to any temperature from zero to 20 degrees below,” Roizman said. “The breath turned out fine at zero, but Friedkin wanted the actors to really feel the cold because he felt it would help their acting. An actor on his knees for 15 minutes in 20 degrees below zero is really going to feel cold. It worked really well. “

The film earned Roizman his second Oscar nod.

He moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1976, and later established his own television commercial production company, Roizman & Associates.

His other Oscar-nominated works spanned several decades, including Sidney Lumet’s TV news satire “Network” (1976), Pollack’s Dustin Hoffman comedy “Tootsie” (1982) and Lawrence Kasdan’s Western “Wyatt Earp” (1994). “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist,” “Network” and “Tootsie” were all also nominated for best picture. “The French Connection” won.

In 1997, he received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Cinematographers.

He said he never regretted turning down any movie — not even “Jaws,” the industry-changing 1975 Steven Spielberg summer movie.

“We talked for maybe three hours on the phone and I really liked him — and I still love the guy to this day,” Roizman said. “But what he didn’t know was that I was thinking to myself the whole time, as he described the story to me, ‘Jesus, a shark terrorizing a town on Long Island—that means a lot of boating.’ I get seasick. So it didn’t sound very inviting to me. So I basically turned it down for that reason.”

He is survived by his wife Mona Lindholm and son Eric Roizman, who pursued his own career behind the camera, working on “Wyatt Earp” with his father, among other pictures.

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