In Memoriam: Richard H. Kline, ASC (1926-2018)

An Academy Award nominee and recipient of ASC Lifetime Achievement Award, the esteemed cinematographer died on August 7 at age of 91.

Rachael Bosley

Securely strapped in, future ASC great Richard H. Kline performs some aerial operation maneuvers with a Mitchell NC while filming the screwball comedy The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960). The director of photography was Charles “Bud” Lawton, ASC, with whom Kline served on numerous pictures while on staff at Columbia Pictures.

Richard H. Kline, ASC (Photo by Owen Roizman, ASC)

Working for more than 40 years as a cinematographer, Richard H. Kline, ASC shot films of nearly every genre, as well as several that defied easy classification. Among his credits were Hang ’Em High, The Boston Strangler, Body Heat, Soylent Green, All of Me, Breathless, The Andromeda Strain, The Fury, Mandingo, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Howard the Duck and My Stepmother Is An Alien. He also shot several television pilots, including The Monkees.

With some understatement, he told American Cinematographer, “I tried never to repeat myself.”

Kline was born on Nov. 15, 1926, into a Los Angeles family that included three ASC cinematographers: his father, Benjamin H. Kline, and two uncles, Sol Halperin and Philip Rosen. However, he said, he took up camerawork at age 16 not out of any great love for the craft — his passion was surfing — but because World War II was raging, and his father believed such training would help him qualify for a camera unit when he was called to serve. He started at Columbia Pictures in 1943 as a slate boy on the Technicolor musical Cover Girl, and by the time he entered the U.S. Navy the following year, he had advanced to first assistant cameraman.

Kline and a simian star during the production of an unidentified picture.

Kline was stationed at the Photo Science Laboratory in Washington, D.C., before shipping out to the Pacific theater. Following the war, he spent three years studying fine arts and art history at the Sorbonne through the G.I Bill. In 1951, he returned to L.A. and resumed working his way up the ranks at Columbia.

Actor Cornel Wilde pulls tape on costar Ron Randall for a youthful Kline — then 1st AC — while shooting the comedy It Had to Be You (1947).

Kline assisted and operated on more than 200 motion pictures, working for such ASC greats as Charles Lawton Jr., Burnett Guffey, James Wong Howe and Philip Lathrop. He described all of them as mentors, but said he learned the most working as an operator for B-movie producer Sam Katzman. “We did 106 features in six years, B pictures like Rock Around the Clock, and I really learned my trade from that experience,” said Kline. Between features, he often worked on The Three Stooges short films.

Director John Frankenheimer and Burnett Guffey, ASC confer as operator Richard Kline and star Burt Lancaster discuss the scene at hand while shooting The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).

Kline moved up to cinematographer on television’s Mr. Novak. At 35, he was “considered very young for the job … the average age of ‘first cameramen’ in those days was about 60,” he recalled. “I was at MGM when it happened, and the cameramen’s table in the commissary was a very closed group. I was almost embarrassed to sit there because I really wasn’t old enough!”

Kline and director Michael O’Herlihy check out the day’s selection of Cynex strips while shooting an episode of the 1960s TV series Mr. Novak.

In his usual spot beside the camera, the cameraman employs his “Kline light” during the filming of Camelot (1967). Using his hand or a gobo to shape the illumination, he would direct the small, usually handheld unit to add a touch of fill or a life-giving twinkle to the eyes.

After shooting a few television projects, Kline landed his first feature, Joshua Logan’s Camelot. The film’s forest set filled every inch of Stage 8 at Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, and because he lacked the space to lay dolly track, he decided to embrace the zoom lens as “an adjustment lens,” changing the focal length incrementally to create the feel of moving shots; he liked the results so much that he used this technique throughout the shoot.

Kline’s camera angles in while shooting Camelot.

For this scene, Kline employed the light of 1,000 candles for the magical wedding of King Arthur (Richard Harris) and Guenevere (Vanessa Redgrave) — with a hint of filtration further spreading their amber glow.

On location, Kline and director Richard Fleischer (with megaphone) during the production of The Boston Strangler (1968).

Zoom lenses also proved key on his next project, Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler, starring Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda, which marked the first use of extensive split-screen photography in a Hollywood feature. Fleischer and Kline worked closely with visual designer Fred Harpman and editor Marion Rothman to plot the extraordinary number of separate setups required to create the multiple-image panels:

The completed composite, created from multiple setups, allowing for the depiction of simultaneous events onscreen.

Star Tony Curtis and Kline confer between setups.

“Dick Kline understood so well what we were after, and he was extraordinarily good at getting it onto film,” Fleischer told AC. “Because he is so imaginative, he was exactly the right man to photograph this picture — ‘perfect casting,’ I would say.” Fleischer went on to collaborate with Kline on the features Soylent Green, The Don Is Dead, Mr. Majestyk and Mandingo.

Filming a surgical sequence for the taut sci-fi thriller The Andromeda Strain (1971), Kline employs what would become known as the “Klinelight” — simply any small fixture he could handhold beside the camera, using his bare fingers or a gobo to cut and shape the light to add a hint of a twinkle in an actor’s eye or improve the facial modeling.

Kline also enjoyed working with director Robert Wise, whom he praised as “the most thorough and complete director I’ve ever worked with.” They teamed on The Andromeda Strain, where the goal was a thriller with a documentary look,and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, where they strove “to shoot the most sophisticated of all science-fiction films without sufficient pre-planning,” Kline told AC wryly.

Shooting on the Star Trek bridge set, which had to be dealt with almost as a practical location due to its construction, making lighting and camera movement difficult.

Kline received his second Oscar nomination for producer Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong, directed by John Guillermin. “It seemed that each scene involved some unique element that required the ultimate in patience,” Kline wrote in his first-person account of the shoot (AC Jan. ’77).

Kline observes the effect of his lighting on a prop head created for King Kong (1976) by makeup effects expert Rick Baker, who would also perform in the ape suit. The cinematographer spoke highly of their collaboration on the picture.

The many challenges included matching shots of a 42'-tall animatronic Kong with closer shots of a “miniature” (life-size) Kong portrayed by makeup-effects artist Rick Baker in an ape suit; filming some of the finale on location atop the World Trade Center; and achieving the proper light and exposure balance between the dark ape and his blonde co-stars, Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges. “Reading a meter was impossible,” Kline wrote. “It was just a question of visual judgment, sighting it through the camera, and using rim lighting to make Kong stand out.”

Director John Guillermin and Kline work out the scene in which Jessica Lange's character would be offered to Kong, which would combine live-action and miniature effects (below).
Director John Guillermin and Kline work out the scene in which Jessica Lange's character would be offered to Kong, which would combine live-action and miniature effects (below).

Guillermin, Kline and actor Jeff Bridges.

On location at the iconic World Trade Center in Manhattan, Kline (center, on crane) angles in on his biggest star. The prop Kong “corpse” of the great ape weighed several tons and had eyes “as big as bowling balls,” but was later torn apart by thousands of extras seeking mementos of their “Kong-frontation” after shooting the film’s finale (below).

In December of 2016, the cinematographer participated in a special 40th anniversary screening of Kong at the American Cinematheque, where he was joined by Rick Baker and others for a Q&A session. (Brief story here, entire discussion here.)

Kline and Baker share the stage during the Kong anniversary event. (Photo courtesy of the American Cinematheque.)

One attendee asked Kline to autograph this classic issue of AC covering the production. (Photo courtesy of the American Cinematheque.)

Kline became an ASC member on Aug. 7, 1967, after being proposed for membership by his uncle, Sol Halperin. When he was honored with the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award 38 years later, he told Variety, “I’m the fourth member of my family to be a member of the ASC, and nobody else can make that statement. It’s very special.”

Filming the comedy All of Me (1984), Kline  deftly employs what is surely every cinematographer’s most basic and essential tool: a bounce card. Behind Kline, actor Steve Martin performs his lines for co-star Victoria Tennant (foreground). Directed by Carl Reiner, the picture was a smash hit. “Photographically, this wasn’t a complicated film,” Kline remembers. “It was all about the performances, and I did everything possible to support them.”

Kline is survived by family including his son Paul, daughter Rija and four grandchildren.

You’ll find an extensive profile on Kline here.

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