In Memoriam: Gene Polito, ASC (1918-2010)

The Emmy-nominated cinematographer died on Nov. 28, 2010, at the age of 92. His credits include the features Westworld and Prime Cut and TV series Lost in Space and It Takes a Thief.

Jon Witmer

The Emmy-nominated cinematographer died on Nov. 28, 2010, at the age of 92.
Polito (right) with writer-director Michael Crichton while shooting the sci-fi classic Westworld (1973).

He was born Eugene Emmanuel Polito on Sept. 13, 1918, in New York City. His family soon moved to Los Angeles, where his father, cinematographer Sol Polito, ASC, went to work for Warner Bros. Introduced to filmmaking at an early age, Gene developed an interest in still photography, a passion he nurtured while studying for a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Southern California.

Polito's senior year at USC was marked by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States' entry into World War II. Upon graduating, Polito put his degree to use for the defense industry, taking a job at Douglas Aircraft as a design engineer. After the war ended, he fully embraced his passion for photography and cinematography and transitioned into the film industry with a job as a "lily boy" for Technicolor. "The 'lily' was a white-faced target with three panels," he explained in a first-person piece in AC in June of 2003. "As soon as the director said, 'Print it,' the lily boy ran out and stuck a lily in front of one actor's face." The camera then rolled on the lily, and back at the lab that section of film was used to determine the appropriate printer lights for the preceding shot,

As Polito worked toward becoming a director of photography, he worked under such masters of the craft as ASC members Joseph Ruttenberg, Charles Rosher, Russell Metty, Ray June, Norbert Brodine, Winton Hoch and James Wong Howe, in addition to his father, Sol. He was forever grateful for his engineering background; when he was under contract as a cinematographer for CV. Whitney Pictures, he was tasked with designing and supervising the construction of two 65mm cameras, and he later designed four 3-D camera rigs for Universal

Polito's first job as a cinematographer was on The Loretta Young Show, and over the years he notched credits on such series as Lost in Space, Mannix, It Takes a Thief and Alias Smith and Jones. He also shot such telefilms as The Sound of Anger, Drive Hard, Drive Fast, All Together Now, Death Scream; and My Sweet Charlie, which brought him an Emmy nomination.

His feature credits included Westworld and its sequel, Futureworld; the Cheech and Chong vehicle Up in Smoke, and Michael Ritchie's Prime Cut. Ritchie was a frequent collabora­tor, and in the June 1972 issue of AC, Polito spoke about their creative partner­ship, which included shooting a televi­sion special for Universal in six days, working out of a station wagon, on loca­tion, with essentially no lights. "I think it is fair to say that the 'workaday' category does not apply to Ritchie!" noted Polito. 

Polito shot photographic effects (including bluescreen work) for the feature Xanadu, and he shot minia­tures for the series Supertrain and miniseries Condominium. On Condominium, his work included a complex sequence in which the eponymous 13-story condo is destroyed by a tidal wave, an effect that required nine wind machines and 20,000 gallons of water. 

In April 1981, Polito joined the ASC after he was recommended for membership by Harry Wolf and Joseph Biroc. He quickly became immersed in Society activities, serv­ing on the Board of Governors from 1982 to 1987. During those same years, he also served on the Editor­ial Advisory Committee, overseeing the Society's publishing activities, including AC. In 1982 and '83, he was chairman of the Membership Committee, and he served as chair­man of the Constitution and By­laws Committee in 1986. He chaired the ASC Summer Golf Tour­nament in 1984 and '85. 

At around the same time he joined the ASC, Polito began teaching at USC's film school. He continued to shoot, taking on projects that would fill the summer months between academic years. In 1989, he retired from both film­making and teaching. 

Polito is survived by his wife, Lucille; sons Gregory, Stephen, Richard and Douglas; daughters Mary, Christine, Michele, Joan and Lisa; 24 grandchil­dren; nine great-grandchildren; his brother, Robert; and numerous nieces and nephews. 

Subscribe Today

Act now to receive 12 issues of the award-winning AC magazine — the world’s finest cinematography resource.

July 2024 AC Magazine Cover
June 2024 AC Magazine Cover
May 2024 AC Magazine Cover