The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents November 2010 Return to Table of Contents
William A. Fraker
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Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Colleagues fondly recall William A. Fraker, ASC, BSC whose charisma and skill made him a Society icon.

Interviews by Benjamin B, Bob Fisher, Jean Oppenheimer, Stephen Pizzello and David E. Williams
One of the ASC’s most beloved members, William A. “Billy” Fraker, died on May 31 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after a battle with cancer. He was 86 at the time of his death, but his energy and youthful exuberance were evident even in his last years of life. 

Fraker’s tremendous charm and charisma led him to become an ASC icon, but it was his work behind the camera that made him a cinematography legend. He was nominated for six Academy Awards, honoring his work on Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Heaven Can Wait, 1941 (for which he also shared a nomination for best visual effects with A.D. Flowers and Greg Jein), WarGames and Murphy’s Romance. He also earned BAFTA nominations for Bullitt and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (an honor he shared with fellow ASC members Haskell Wexler and Bill Butler), as well as a shared BAFTA nomination for Best Special Visual Effects on WarGames. 

Fraker received lifetime-achievement awards from the ASC in 2000 and from Camerimage in 2003, capping a career that produced many other movies, including Rosemary’s Baby, Paint Your Wagon, The Day of the Dolphin, Exorcist II: The Heretic, American Hot Wax, Sharky’s Machine, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Irreconcilable Differences, SpaceCamp, Baby Boom, The Freshman, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Honeymoon in Vegas, Tombstone, Father of the Bride Part II, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Vegas Vacation, Rules of Engagement and Town and Country. He also directed three pictures — Monte Walsh, Reflections of Fear and The Legend of the Lone Ranger — and episodes of numerous TV series. 

Born in Los Angeles on Sept. 29, 1923, Fraker grew up amid the glitter of Hollywood. His maternal grandmother, who arrived in Los Angeles from Mazatlan, Mexico, in 1910 with his mother and aunt, worked downtown as a still photographer at Monroe Studios. After Fraker’s parents married, she schooled his father, William Fraker Jr., who excelled at the craft. “My father started out at Universal, Pathé and First National before running the stills gallery at Columbia from 1928-’29 to 1934, when he died of pneumonia,” Fraker told AC in Feb. ’00. “My uncle Charles started out working for him, but moved over to work at Paramount, where he later took over the department and ran it until after World War II, when the studios eliminated all of their stills galleries. 

“My mother died a year after my father passed away, so I was raised by my grandmother and my aunt. They told me I was going to become a cameraman, so from the time I was 14, that’s what I was going to be.” 

Fraker quit high school during World War II to do a four-year hitch in the Coast Guard, and he saw action throughout the Pacific. He grew up as a die-hard University of Southern California football fan, an allegiance that came to full fruition when he attended USC Film School under the G.I. Bill and, many years later, taught there as an instructor. 

At USC, Fraker became fast friends with fellow student and future ASC member Conrad Hall; he later served as Hall’s camera operator on a string of pictures before advancing to the rank of “first cameraman.” One of Fraker’s key instructors was Slavko Vorkapich, whom he credited with helping him learn to think visually and to perceive motion pictures as “still pictures that move at 24 fps.” 

After graduating from USC in 1951 with a B.A. in Cinema, a determined Fraker battled his way into the camera union (Local 659) in 1954. He got his first assignment just two days later when he was dispatched to General Service Studios to serve as a second camera assistant on the TV series The Lone Ranger, working for cinematographer Bob Pittack, ASC. He caught another break when he landed a gig on the series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, where he worked for 7½ years. (With the support of that show’s star, Ozzie Nelson, he progressed to the rank of operator.) Fraker spent a number of subsequent years working on various television shows as an operator for Hall, including the Western Stoney Burke (1962-’63) and the sci-fi classic The Outer Limits (1963-’65); he then signed on as Hall’s operator on the feature film The Wild Seed (1965), and later turned down an offer from Jack Lord to work on Hawaii Five-0 in order to serve as Hall’s operator on the 1966 feature film The Professionals

Fraker’s first job as a full-fledged director of photography was the 1967 thriller Games, directed by Curtis Harrington. He subsequently shot The Fox and The President’s Analyst before landing the project that would propel him into cinematography’s top rank: Roman Polanski’s 1968 occult thriller Rosemary’s Baby. “Roman is one of the greatest storytellers I’ve worked with, and he knew how to control and lead the audience,” Fraker told AC three decades later. “He used suggestion to do a lot of it. His earlier films, Repulsion and Cul-De-Sac, had very little actual violence in them, but they were horrifying. Roman knew how to do that dramatically through the acting and the dialogue. When you’re a cinematographer, you have to do it visually, with the lighting and the camera.” 

Fraker followed that triumph by shooting another 1968 classic, Bullitt, which featured one of the most famous car chases ever committed to film — a sequence that required the cinematographer to be strapped to the hood of a Mustang Fastback traveling more than 100 mph. In typically modest fashion, he later maintained that it was the directing that sold the car chase and made it an all-time classic: “The chase is actually quite straightforward, but the execution — Peter Yates’ storytelling — is remarkable.” 

The year 1968 was also important to Fraker because he was invited to join the ASC, an organization he came to love as much as USC. His sponsor was the great cinematographer Stanley Cortez, ASC, who was always known for his outspoken, cantankerous nature. “We’d be at the Clubhouse arguing about things for hours, and it was great fun,” Fraker remembered. “The ASC at that time was a really great place … I’d be at the Clubhouse talking to Lee Garmes, George Folsey, Milton Krasner, Arthur Miller — God almighty, I was in awe of these people!” 

Famous for his unabashed enjoyment of cocktails, Fraker recalled, “Charles Clarke was the treasurer of the ASC at the time, and Charlie controlled all the money, so he had the bar and all the booze totally locked up! You couldn’t get into that bar with dynamite. But we fought him on it and finally opened the damn thing up. He went crazy!” 

Fraker later served three terms as ASC president (1979-’80, ’84, ’91-93) and used his position to stump for a variety of causes, arguing that cinematographers should have above-the-line status, calling for better technical information resources, establishing scholarships for aspiring cinematographers, and helping to bring attention to disturbing trends in colorizing, reformatting and otherwise altering feature films beyond recognition for television and home-video presentation. 

Summing up the main principle that guided him throughout his career, Fraker once told AC that while various technologies come in and out of vogue, “the secret of making movies is that — no matter what you’re doing on the set — you’re a storyteller. You’re helping to tell a story. And that’s one thing that’s lacking in some of the films I’ve seen lately — there’s a vague plot, but you don’t care about the characters.” In another career-spanning interview with Bob Fisher, he stressed the single-mindedness required to succeed in such a glamorous but demanding profession: “If you want to survive in this industry, you need to be dedicated. It has to be the most important thing in your life. The competition out there is ferocious — which is not bad, but if you want to make it, you have to be dedicated, and it is a 24-hour-a-day job, seven days a week. It has to be more important than your family, your kids, your house, than anything.”

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