John Alonzo, who died on March 13, was best known as director of photography on pics “Chinatown,” “Norma Rae,” “Harold and Maude” and last year’s Edmmy-winning TV special “Fail Safe.”
But in addition to his artistic legacy, Alonzo was among the first Mexican American members of Local 659 of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (now the International Cinematographers Guild).
He was also a pioneering member of the American Society of Cinematographers, where his talents helped change the face of Hollywood.
Along with Gabriel Figueroa — the legendary Mexican director of photography on John Huston’s “Night of the Iguana” and “Under the Volcano” who was never a member of the ASC — Alonzo paved the way for other Mexican lensers to work Stateside.
They include Emmanuel Lubezki (“Sleepy Hollow,” the upcoming “Ali”), Guillermo Navarro (“Jackie Brown,” “From Dusk Till Dawn”) and Gabriel Beristain (“The Spanish Prisoner,” “Dolores Claiborne”).
Alonzo was born in Dallas, Texas, but went to elementary school in Mexico where his parents were born. “They sent him early on to school in Guadalajara because his mother wanted him to speak the language,” recalls Jan Murray, Alonzo’s wife and closest companion for 40 years.
But like many Mexican Americans who came of age during the Eisenhower era, Alonzo’s assimilation into American culture was driven by his need to take advantage of opportunities denied his parents, who were migrant workers.
He enjoyed sports like football and basketball, and became an avid golfer with his wife.
“We bought a house about 30 miles outside of Auburn, Alabama after he shot ‘Norma Rae,'” recalls Murray. “It’s on a lake, but closest to our house was this wonderful golf course. Sometimes we would play 36 holes a day, that’s how addicted we were. He called it his golden pond.”
Alonzo’s introduction to Hollywood had been less than golden, however.
As a character actor from the mid-’50s to the late ’60s, Alonzo was often cast as a Mexican “bandido” and other stereotypes. But instead of becoming discouraged, he paid attention to what the directors of photography were doing, including Charles Lang, Jr. (“The Magnificent Seven”) and Floyd Crosby (“Ballad of a Bad Man”).
After working as an assistant cameraman with James Wong Howe and Burnett Guffey, Alonzo’s first big breakthrough occurred in 1969 when he shot “Bloody Moma” for Roger Corman.
On the strength of his work, Alonzo followed up as d.p. on “Vanishing Point,” “Harold and Maude,” and “Lady Sings the Blues,” all within two years.
When Alonzo was finally admitted into the ASC — which is run like an elite fraternity requiring written recommendations from two members — he earned the privilege like any other: through hard work and the respect of his peers.
“Had you attended his funeral and the ASC memorial, you’d get an idea of what an enormously respected and received man that he was,” says Wayne Fitterman, Alonzo’s agent at UTA, “because of everything he gave back to the community, to film students and to young d.p.s on the way up.”
One of those young talents was two-time Oscar winner John Toll (“Legends of the Fall,” “Braveheart”), who worked with Alonzo as a camera technician on “Black Sunday.” Alonzo promoted him to camera operator on “FM,” his debut as a director.
“John was always trying to promote people and encourage them to move up the ladder, I think primarily because that was his background,” says Toll. “He worked various jobs before he became a cameraman.”
Just as Alonzo served as a mentor to Toll, Crosby took Alonzo under his wing, giving him the guidance and courage to approach producer David Wolper (“Roots,” “L.A. Confidential”) about shooting documentaries.
His work with Wolper led to work on several National Geographic specials, including 18 weeks with underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau.
“He came out of a documentary background,” says Toll, “and his films always had a reality-based sensibility about them. It wasn’t that he had a single photographic style, but I think within his various approaches to films there was a real sense of using the camera to tell the story. I learned a lot from that.”
This verite style perhaps best manifested itself in Alonzo’s work with Martin Ritt on “Sounder” and “Norma Rae,” but it was Alonzo’s work on “Chinatown” for which he will be best remembered.
“I think what a really successful period film does is put you into the reality of that time,” says d.p. Allen Daviau, “and that’s the way ‘Chinatown’ was.
“It was so impeccably filmed, even with the use of hand held. He experimented with a lot of techniques and really came up with a look that you remember as well today as the first time you saw it.”
One of those techniques he learned from Howe, using Chinese tracing paper to shift the light and color, giving “Chinatown” a golden burnish.
Other experiments included using a new 250-speed color negative film to an exposure of 2000 on 1983’s “Blue Thunder,” employing the technique to capture a feeling of gritty darkness as seen by police helicopters at night.
Last year, Alonzo orchestrated several high-def video cameras as d.p. on George Clooney’s “Fail Safe” telepic, the first feature-length story to be broadcast live on CBS in 39 years. The effort earned him an Emmy.
“‘Give him a dare,’ that’s what everybody said to me about John,” says Daviau. “When he was on a picture and somebody wanted to try something crazy, he was anxious to do it.”
Alonzo was never one to back down from challenges. “You have to remember the context of his introduction to the business in the early to mid-60s,” says Toll.
“Being a racial minority meant more than it does today. There was always that sensibility about John, which is why he never lost sight of where he came from. He was extremely proud of his heritage.”