Fred Koenekamp, ASC, sat next to director Franco Zeffirelli, looking at dailies for The Champ in a makeshift projection room set up in their hotel. As he watched the film, Koenekamp’s own impression was that the footage looked good, but as the film unspooled, Zeffirelli became increasingly agitated. “He started tapping on the table with his hand,” recalls Koenekamp, “and all of a sudden, he jumped up and ran out of there. He hit the projection machine, the picture went off the screen, and I thought, ‘My god, what’s wrong?’ I was devastated!
“Everybody came down to my room, and there were about 10 of us sitting there. We knew he was upset, but we didn’t know why. The phone rings. I pick it up, and it’s Franco.
“‘Fred,’” he said, “‘I’m calling you to apologize for what went on in there, because I must have worried you.’
“He said he had sent a rewrite on that scene and the studio wouldn’t okay it. He felt the dialogue was all wrong. He hated the scene, not the photography. The people in the room were watching me, and they could tell things were better. I could see it in their faces. It turned out fine, but those are the little scary things that happen.”
Released in 1979, The Champ was Koenekamp’s 33rd feature, following such classics as Patton (1970), Papillon (1973), The Towering Inferno (1974) and Islands in the Stream (1977). He clearly knew his craft as a cinematographer, but he was every bit as anxious as he had been when he stepped onto a courtroom set as director of photography for the MGM television series The Lieutenant in 1963. “The production department had given me a lecture: ‘You’re not here to make friends, you’re not here to be a hero on the set, you’re here to get 11 or 12 pages done a day.’ I walked on the set, and all of a sudden it hit me: ‘My god! You’re the first cameraman! What are you going to do?’ Luckily, I had some good crew members!”
From his first film job as a camera loader at RKO in 1947, Koenekamp, the recipient of this year’s ASC Lifetime Achievement Award, served a 16-year apprenticeship before he became a director of photography. It wasn’t always an easy road, even though he had the advantage of being the son of cinematographer Hans Koenekamp, ASC. “It didn’t mean that much as a young kid that my dad worked in pictures,” he says. “But every once in a while, he would take me to the studio on Saturdays. He was in Special Effects at Warner Bros., and Stage 5 housed the Camera and Special Effects Department. There was a balcony that overlooked the stage where they had all the miniatures. I used to just love to go up there and look around.”
But trips to the studio did not foster any desire for a film career for himself. Koenekamp was interested in airplanes and hoped to pursue a career in aviation. He learned to fly and enrolled in the commercial-aviation program at the University of Southern California, but World War II intervened. He didn’t want to be drafted, and his father refused to sign the paperwork that would have allowed him to enlist in the Army Air Corps, so the junior Koenekamp enlisted in the Navy and served in the South Pacific.
“I was in the Navy for three and a half years. After that I took a couple of months to see old friends and take it easy, and then I decided I’d go back to school. In the meantime, I’d met a girl, and luckily a job offer came to start as a film loader at RKO. Herb Aller was head of the cameraman’s union, and he was a really good guy. I think my dad talked to him, because it was Herb who called me. I was almost 24, and I thought, ‘I’m not that excited about going to school. I’d better take this job and then I can get married.’ That was really the beginning of it, because all of a sudden I was totally fascinated by the picture business.
“Bill Eglington was the head of the camera department at RKO. He had an associate named Ted Winchester, and they were both just great to me. They wanted me to learn. In my spare time in the loading room, they had me working on cameras and learning how to take care of them. It was a great experience. But unfortunately, the first five years in the business were really up and down. The studios were busy, and then all of a sudden they weren’t, and you’d get laid off. I was married by that time, so I did all kinds of screwball jobs just to try to keep things going. During one of the dry spells, a friend offered me a job in his wholesale liquor business in Arizona, but I gave the studio my phone number [when I left]. I hated the job I had down there in Tucson.
“Lo and behold, one day the phone rang, and it was Bill Eglington at RKO. He said, ‘We’re going into a number of 3-D things. Would you like to come back?’ I said, ‘I’ll be there tomorrow.’”
The 1953 3-D fad provided a rare opportunity. The Natural Vision rigs utilized two cameras and required a fair amount of loving care and adjustment. “They had me testing cameras and working with Ted Winchester,” recalls Koenekamp. “We were shooting tests, but not with people; there were a lot of things to test with the 3-D setups. Then business picked up enough that they made me an assistant cameraman, and my first picture as an assistant at RKO was Underwater! , which starred Jane Russell and was directed by John Sturges. We went over to Hawaii and shot there for six or seven weeks. I learned to do underwater work. Harry Wild was the cinematographer on that picture.