The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents March 2011 Return to Table of Contents
The Adjustment Bureau
Career TV Award
Page 2
Presidents Award
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Michael D. O’Shea, ASC, this year’s Career Achievement in Television honoree, credits his mentors for his success.

Photos courtesy of Michael O’Shea.
Ask Michael D. O’Shea, ASC about his long and distinguished career, and he’ll tell you about all the people who helped him along the way. He seems more comfortable giving compliments than getting them, but he was on the receiving end last month, when he was honored with the ASC’s Career Achievement in Television Award.

O’Shea’s extensive list of credits includes the TV series CSI: Miami, Jack and Bobby, Bones and Eli Stone; the pilots for Everwood, Once and Again and The Player; and the miniseries and telefilms Blind Ambition and The Letter. He has also shot a number of theatrical releases, including Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Here on Earth, The New Guy and Big Momma’s House. He has earned five Emmy nominations, beginning in 1992 with Doogie Howser, M.D., his first TV series as a director of photography. He earned two nominations in 1997, one for the series Relativity, the other for the telefilm Love, Honor and Deceive (directed by fellow ASC member Michael Watkins); another in 1999, for the miniseries The ’60s; and the most recent one for CSI: Miami, for which he took home the prize.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, O’Shea was a star baseball player in high school. Recruited straight out of school, he accepted an offer from the Baltimore Orioles, playing on its farm team for four years. During the off-season, he worked part-time as a laborer on the Warner Bros. lot.

Henri Lehman, the assistant head of the Warner Bros. camera department, was a close friend of the family and had known O’Shea since he was a kid. When O’Shea gave up baseball, he approached Lehman about pursuing cinematography. “I knew nothing about cameras, but I heard it was a field where I could learn something every day, and I liked that idea,” says O’Shea. “Plus,” he admits with a laugh, “they paid a lot.”

Lehman wasn’t very encouraging, explaining that nepotism played a role in who got jobs. But O’Shea was determined. “I asked him, ‘What do I have to do to prove myself?’” From then on, every night, when his shift on the labor crew ended, he would head over to the camera department and work for free, learning how to load magazines, cut filters and stock the assistants’ carts for the next morning. There was another young man moonlighting there, a mail boy named Dick Rawlings Jr. (now ASC), who also harbored dreams of becoming a cameraman. After a year, Rawlings was offered a job as a loader. Three weeks later, O’Shea was hired. “That was June of 1965,” remarks O’Shea. “On July 10, I got married. So suddenly I was married and had a career. If that isn’t a gift …!”

Two years later, O’Shea moved up to second assistant on the TV series Daktari, shot by Fritz Mandl. “Fritz was such a lovely man,” says O’Shea. “To show you what a fair man he was, he had a son who wanted to be in the camera department. Fritz could have got rid of me and let his son in, but he didn’t. That’s a big part of how I learned to do things; it was all about fairness and honesty. I had a father like that, and then I was lucky to work for a man like that.”

Jeremiah Francis O’Shea, an émigré from Ireland, had a profound influence on his son. “I never heard him say a bad word about anybody,” asserts the younger O’Shea. “He was very fair and treated everybody equally. He passed away in 2007 at the age of 100½, and I will never stop missing him.” O’Shea remains close to his 96-year-old mother. “My dad was very quiet, but my Italian-American mother is more outspoken. She has also had an enormous influence on me.” After a reflective pause, he says simply, “My parents are my heroes.”

Once O’Shea started working, he seldom stopped. From Daktari he moved over to Gunsmoke, which filmed on the CBS lot. It was there that O’Shea met future ASC members John C. Flinn III and Lloyd Ahern, who became lifelong friends. “Three Irishmen?” says O’Shea, cocking an eyebrow. “We hit it off real well — too well, sometimes!”

“I’m so excited Mike is receiving the award this year,” says Flinn, who received the Career Achievement in TV Award last year. “I asked him to present to me last year, and he asked me to present to him this year. How cool is that? I get to go up there and get even!”

When Gunsmoke went on summer hiatus, O’Shea moved over to Barefoot in the Park as a first assistant. Director of photography Howard Schwartz, ASC would end up playing a special role in O’Shea’s life. “Howard was a marvelous teacher and a hard taskmaster. I was pretty raw, and he took me under his wing. He taught me about the importance of composition; he also taught me to pay attention to what’s going on around me and speak up if I feel something doesn’t look right. He said that if I stayed with him, he would move me up to operator in three years. It was unheard of to move up to operator that fast! Truthfully, it was the last thing on my mind. I just wanted to learn to be a good first assistant.”

True to his word, three years later Howard moved O’Shea up to operator on the anthology series Love Story. Michael Landon directed the first episode. “Michael was a very creative director and liked to [move the camera around a lot],” O’Shea says. “Howard said to me, ‘This is going to be a tough job. If we start laying out shots and you think you’re going to have a problem, just give me a wink, and I’ll make an excuse and come in and do the shot.’”

“The very first shot had me walking behind the camera — the Italian dolly was too small to ride — bringing somebody in a door, taking him down a hallway and into a living room where, after a bit of a scene, I took him out of the room, down the hallway again and into a bathroom. I was winking like crazy, and Howard was just laughing!”

O’Shea spent 17 years as an operator, working primarily in TV with, among others, ASC members Robert Stevens, Ed Brown Sr. and James Crabbe. He says he learned from all of them. He suggests that Cannonball Run, with director of photography Nick McLean, was the film that really got him started. “It was my first feature as the A-camera operator. Actually, my first was Raise the Titanic, with Matt Leonetti, ASC, but I didn’t finish that film. I was dealing with some personal issues at the time. I will always [be grateful] to Matt for [giving me a second chance] on Extreme Prejudice.”

O’Shea operated on 11 films with McLean, including Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs. “When Nick didn’t have time to pre-light scenes, he would ask me to do it and then shoot some tests. Watching dailies the following day, Nick never failed to inform Mel that I had shot the tests. Mel kept telling me, ‘I’m keeping my eye on you. If I ever get an opportunity, I’m going to make you a director of photography.’”

In 1993, Brooks made good on his promise. The film was Robin Hood: Men in Tights. “Mel said, ‘I’m going to give it to you, and goddamn it, you’d better be fast!’” recalls O’Shea. By then, O’Shea had already shot two seasons of Doogie Howser, M.D. He credits Ahern with helping him secure that job. “Lloyd moved up to director of photography before I did. He was doing a series for Steven Bochco, Hooperman, and he needed an operator. I went in and stayed for two seasons. Lloyd kept encouraging me to move up, and he kept pushing me with the Bochco people. When they started Doogie Howser, I operated the first year and moved up to director of photography during the second, when Freddie Moore, ASC left.”

O’Shea brought in a young operator named Steve Smith, who’s still with him today. “Mike is very generous as far as explaining how things work and how to make things better,” notes Smith. “At the same time, he demands that the things he teaches you be done correctly. He taught me how to talk to directors and [showed me] that you have to be able to fix things when a shot’s not working.”


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