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Gordon Willis, Legendary ‘Godfather’ Cinematographer, Dead at 82

Gordon Willis, Legendary 'Godfather' Cinematographer, Dead at 82

Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Gordon Willis, who helped define the look of 70s cinema and worked closely with Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Alan Pakula, died on Sunday at 82.

As the DP on iconic 70s films such as “Klute,” “The Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men,” as well as “The Godfather,” Willis created a heightened sense of tension. Later in the decade, with Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” Willis helped to cement the iconography of New York City on film.

He also worked with Allen on “Interiors,” “Zelig,” “Stardust Memories,” “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” “Broadway Danny Rose” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”

READ MORE: 5 Tips from Master Cinematographer Gordon Willis

“Gordon Willis is a major influence for me and many cinematographers of my generation,” Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Darius Khondji, who has also worked regularly with Allen, told Indiewire. “But the modernity of his work will influence as much the generations of filmmakers to come. He had a major importance on this new American Cinema in the seventies.”

Dubbed “The Prince of Darkness” by his friend and fellow cinematographer for his use of shadows, Conrad Hall, Willis was known for using low-light photography and underexposed film to create a “noir” look — even when using color film.

“Our job isn’t to recreate reality, our job is to represent reality,” Willis told the web site Craft Truck in a recent interview.

Willis received Academy Award nominations for best cinematography for “Zelig” and “The Godfather: Part III and, in 2010, was awarded an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar for  “unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion.”

In an interview with People Magazine when “Zelig” was released, Allen said, “He’s an artist. He’s got a great sense of humor—he taught me a lot.” 

Born in Queens, NY, Willis was interested in film from an early age, inspired by his father, who was a makeup artist for Warner Bros. He studied photography, a skill which served him well in the Korean War as an Air Force Photographic and Charting Serviceman. He started his film career as an assistant cameraman and worked in commercials and documentaries before entering into narrative feature films in 1970 with “End of the Road,” “Loving,” “The People Next Door” and Hal Ashby’s “The Landlord.”

After the heyday of 70s cinema, in which Willis was a key figure, he continued to work steadily through the 80s and 90s on films such as “Presumed Innocent” and “The Devil’s Own,” both directed by Pakula.

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