Five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Owen Roizman, who made groundbreaking films including The French Connection, The Exorcist, Network and Tootsie, has died. He was 86 years old.
Born in New York, Roizman, who died at his home in Los Angeles, received an honorary Oscar for professional achievement in 2017, after leaving the film industry in the 1990s, winning gold statuettes despite multiple 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 his second film, The French Connection in 1971, in which Gene Hackman portrayed a brutal 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, which he found amusing considering the variety of genres he excelled at.
“Immediately after The French Connection, I was labeled as a gritty New York street photographer, which I found very funny because I had never shot anything like The French Connection before,” Roizman told the Los Angeles Times. interview from 2017. “I have a lot of fun with this. My main goal has always been to just serve the story and tell it visually in the best way I know how.”
Roizman, born in Brooklyn on September 22, 1936, grew up with a camera in his blood.
His father, Sol, was a cameraman for Fox Movietone News. His uncle Morrie was a film editor. After graduating from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, he began his career as an assistant cameraman on commercials and then became a cinematographer.
His breakthrough came in the low-budget 1970 film Stop, which almost no one saw except for some key characters, Friedkin and The French Connection producer Phil D’Antoni, who liked his work.
The French Connection was distinguished by its use of available outdoor lighting, which gave it an authentic feel. A groundbreaking chase scene unfolds through the mean streets of New York as tough detective Det. Popeye Doyle (Academy Award-winning Hackman) takes control of a civilian car and tries to keep up with the killer as he tries 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 dashboard camera that looked through the windshield and one above the driver’s shoulder. We had five cameras from the outside. We broke it down into five stunts, and the rest are just bits and pieces. For each of the stunts, we had five cameras positioned at different angles to capture everything.”
Roizman told American Cinematographer that “the biggest problem was matching because the light was constantly changing. As we ran along the tracks, another train passed and blocked the light. Or we walked between tall buildings, which clipped the light in the center of the stage.”
His work on Friedkin’s 1973 The Exorcist is remembered for bringing vivid realism to the supernatural horror genre.
He told American Cinematographer that one of the challenges of shooting the climatic exorcism scene was to capture the sub-zero temperature of a child’s bedroom by showing the actors’ breathing on the screen.
For a believable effect, the filmmakers created a replica of the room and chilled it.
“They developed a system that could quickly cool a room to any temperature from zero to 20 below,” said Roizman. “Breath came up fine at zero, but Friedkin wanted the actors to really feel the cold because he felt it would help them perform. An actor on his knees for 15 minutes in 20 degrees below zero will be really cold. It worked out very well.”
The film earned Roizman his second Oscar nomination.
He moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1976, later starting his own TV commercial production company, Roizman & Associates.
His other Oscar-nominated work spanned several decades, including Sidney Lumet’s television satire “Network” (1976), Dustin Hoffman Pollack’s comedy “Tootsie” (1982), and Lawrence Kasdan’s western “Wyatt Earp” (1994). The French Connection, The Exorcist, The Web and Tootsie were 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’s never regretted turning down a movie — not even Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s 1975 breakout summer blockbuster.
“We spoke on the phone for maybe three hours and I really liked him – and I still love the guy,” Roizman said. “But what he didn’t know was that I was thinking to myself the whole time he was telling me this story: ‘Jesus, a shark is terrorizing a town on Long Island – that means a lot of boating.’ I get seasick. So that didn’t sound very appealing to me. So I turned it down really because of that.
He is survived by his wife, Mona Lindholm, and son, Eric Roizman, who pursued his own career behind the camera, working with his father on Wyatt Earp and other films.