The ASC's latest lifetime recipient followed in his father's footsteps

When the ASC honors Richard Kline with a Lifetime Achievement Award on Sunday for his contributions to cinematography, it’s almost as though the society will be celebrating his family tree.

“I am the fourth member of my family to be a member of the ASC,” Kline says, “and nobody else can make that statement. My uncle Phil Rosen was the first president; he helped found the ASC. And I have another uncle, Sol Halprin, who was also a past two-time president of the ASC. It’s very special.”

Kline, whose career dates back to the 1940s, served his apprenticeship at Columbia Pictures, where as camera operator he worked with such cinematography icons as James Wong Howe and Burnett Guffey. It was through this experience that he gained the mastery which, as a director of photography, he later brought to such features as “Camelot,” “Hang ‘em High,” “Soylent Green” and “Body Heat.”

Family ties didn’t hurt. Kline got his start in the industry when his father, Benjamin Kline, a celebrated d.p. whose credits include the cult noir classic “Detour,” suggested he take a job on the Columbia lot in the camera department in order to qualify for a camera unit when he entered military service.

After the war, Kline briefly contemplated a career in law before returning to Columbia, where he came onboard Orson Welles’ “Lady From Shanghai” as assistant cameraman. Following three years spent studying art at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill, Kline again returned to Columbia, where he worked his way up to operator, honing his skills in the heyday of the studio era and learning efficiency from the heavy production schedules. His first assignment as director of photography was on the TV series “Mr. Novak” in 1964.

His debut feature as a d.p., on the 1968 King Arthur epic “Camelot,” earned him an Oscar nomination, as did the 1968 remake of “King Kong.” On “Camelot” he pre-exposed (“flashed”) the negative to achieve a pastel color palette, and for his work on “The Boston Strangler,” one of the three features he shot for Richard Fleisher, Kline supervised the complex photographic process that created the multiple screen effects entirely in the camera.

“Cinematography is balance,” Kline says. “You can’t learn it in school — schools can inspire, but you can’t really teach somebody to do lighting or framing your way; they have to discover their own way.”

As most cinematographers will tell you, Kline says he owes his greatest loyalty to the director. “We collaborate,” he says, “that’s the beauty of it — two minds striving for the same outcome, and we zig and zag as we go along.”

Regarding actors, Kline says: “They’re the ones emoting the story, and you’ve got to make them look as appetizing as possible. I do a lot of the close-up lighting standing next to the camera with a handheld light.”

One director who remembers his work with Kline with especial fondness is Ted Post, who in 1968 directed “Hang ‘em High,” the first production of Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso Prods. Having been saddled with an inexperienced d.p. who was eating up production time without results, Post brought in Kline when there was only a month left to shoot the entire film.

“He saved the film for me, and frankly saved my career because of his speed and quality,” Post recalls. “And his sensitivity and imagination were fantastic. He proved he could work under limited circumstances when the schedule was tight and things felt tremendously urgent. To me, he has always been a shining light, and we’ve been friends ever since.”

Although much of his career took place during the era when cinematographers worked without the luxury of videotapes and CGI, Kline welcomes the changes in technology that are transforming the profession. “What we did in ‘Boston Strangler,’ all the split-screen, ’24’ does in post; they do it all the time,” he says. “It’s so easy to do today — an amateur can do it at home. We have marvelous tools today, why not use them, and why not make them even better.”

As much as he respects his cinematographic mentors, Kline attributes much of his inspiration as a d.p. to raising his children, who taught him to keep his eyes open and not take life for granted. “I’ve been very lucky to be in this industry, too,” he says. “You see so much more than the average person, I think. I’ve been everywhere and I’ve taken my children with me; they experienced it all with me, and I also learned with them.”

As to his current career, Kline is moving in new directions. “I’ve been directing and photographing commercials,” he says. “I’ve been taking courses to hone my writing, and I now have seven scripts that I’m starting to present. I’m still very active. I get up at 3 in the morning to do my writing, I write until 4 o’clock and then there’s the rest of the day.”

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