I first met William A. Fraker, ASC – Billy, to those of us who knew him – during the sticky New York summer of 1989 while working as the Steadicam focus puller on the film he was shooting at the time, The Freshman. Billy had always represented the epitome of what I imagined as a “Hollywood cameraman,” which was an entirely different species from the ones I had worked under on the East Coast. Nominated six times for an Academy Award, he was devoted for many years to his lovely wife Denise and his coolness factor transcended most everyone around him. Handsome, quirky and charismatic, he was a unique figure in the history of cinematography, the last of a breed.
A tail-end product of the studio era, he used to describe the world he came from in the warmest tone. “Those were the good days,” he liked to say, and man, how could you deny it? There was true leadership in Hollywood, something he was very cognizant of. There was plenty of work for everyone, in town and on really good films for the most part. Then there was the prevailing family atmosphere in a place nowadays noted for its lack of feeling.
During those moments when he really opened up at the ASC Clubhouse (there were many and they ran the gamut from solemn to hilarious…) you could sense that rather than just relating the mechanics of shooting such-and-such film, Billy was telling us about what mattered to him the most – friendship and loyalty. This’s not to say he lived in the past; he was the most forward-thinking person you could meet. But while the era that formed him was in many ways better than the present, by Billy’s measure it was also more romantic. And that was the key to his great appeal. When he used the words magnificent, marvelous and sensational as he did regularly, he wasn’t just overstating the case about something that caught his attention. He was sharing his spirit and enthusiasm for life, both of which knew no bound. Billy was one of those people who conducted himself from a place of love rather than fear, and believe me, you picked up on it as soon as he entered the room.
In late 1999 I was about to start prepping Down To Earth, a remake of one of Billy’s Oscar-nominated gems, Heaven Can Wait. I wanted to get his blessing so to speak, and our mutual pal Art Tostado of CFI Lab arranged for a lunch. I still get butterflies when I think about that afternoon. Here I was, a First Cameraman (as Billy liked to say) engaging with one of my heroes on an intimate level. That he accepted me as a colleague was its own reward, but it was his encouragement that touched me to my soul. I knew there was no way I would approach what he achieved in his 1978 version and told him as much; he countered that I would in fact exceed it. He also told me that no matter what happened he’d always be my friend. Needless to say, I was right in my prediction about my work. And Billy was right about his pledge, to the very end.
It’s unconscionable that the industry didn’t make more notice of his passing, which took place eleven years ago yesterday. He was one of the true giants of his time. He often used to say that when he watched his mentors work, he “wanted to do what they did.” Well, I watched what he did – all of it – and I still want to do those things, too.
Whether or not I’ve made a success of it is immaterial. What matters is that I was blessed to spend time with him and that I got to know him. I’m much the better man for it.
Photo by Douglas Kirkland