Laszlo Kovacs, the Hungarian-born cinematographer who shot counterculture classics such as “Easy Rider” as well as more mainstream pics including “Ghostbusters” and “Miss Congeniality” died Saturday in his sleep in Beverly Hills. He was 74.
James Chressanthis, who is working on the documentary “Laszlo & Vilmos” about Kovacs and his friend of five decades, fellow d.p. Vilmos Zsigmond, said that although Kovacs, a cancer survivor, had been feeling better lately, he was not able to make a Friday meeting with longtime associate Bob Rafelson. “Their lives intersected with so many great filmmakers,” Chressanthis said of the two lensers.
“He was my soulmate, like a brother,” said Zsigmond. “We escaped together, we worked together, we helped each other. He was a great cinematographer.”
Kovacs was in his last year of school in his native Budapest when a revolt against the Communist regime started on the streets. With classmate Zsigmond, he borrowed a school camera and filmed the conflict. They smuggled the footage into Austria and entered the U.S. as political refugees in 1957. The historic footage was later featured in a CBS docu narrated by Walter Cronkite. “They risked their lives shooting the revolution,” Chressanthis said. “They would have been executed if they had been caught.”
After working a series of menial jobs on his arrival in America, Kovacs began working in television, moving into features with “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.”
“Suddenly all the young filmmakers were looking for younger guys with new ideas — we came from Europe and they liked us. That was the American New Wave,” said Zsigmond of the fertile filmmaking period of the late ’60s and early 1970s.
During the 1960s, he shot exploitation films (“The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill”), period curios (“Mondo Mod”) and four Richard Rush low-budgeters–“A Man Called Dagger,” “Hell’s Angels On Wheels,” “Psych-Out” (both with Jack Nicholson) and “The Savage Seven.” Kovacs and Rush subsequently worked together on “Getting Straight” and “Freebie and the Bean.”
His dazzling location work and independent working methods led him to teamings with other quickly rising and influential young directors. He shot Peter Bogdanovich’s first feature, “Targets,” Robert Altman’s “That Cold Day in the Park,” Dennis Hopper’s seminal “Easy Rider” and Bob Rafelson’s breakthrough “Five Easy Pieces.”
When Kovacs shot “Easy Rider, “It was like a revolution in Hollywood. It didn’t look like any of the other movies the studios made in those days.”
“Neither he or I believed in a specific style — just very natural lighting, a kind of poetic realism,” said Zsigmond.
Through the 1970s, Kovacs continued these associations, for Bogdanovich lensing “Directed by John Ford,” “What’s Up, Doc?,” “Paper Moon,” “At Long Last Love,” “Nickelodeon” and, later, “Mask.” He worked again with Hopper on “The Last Movie” and with Rafelson on “The King of Marvin Gardens.”
During the decade he also collaborated with Paul Mazursky on “Alex in Wonderland,” with Hal Ashby on “Shampoo,” with Martin Scorsese on “New York, New York” and “The Last Waltz,” and with Arthur Penn on “Inside Moves.” He also contributed additional photography to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” for which Zsigmond won an Oscar.
Kovacs gradually moved into more mainstream fare on such pictures as “Pocket Money,” “Slither,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “For Pete’s Sake,” “Harry and Walter Go to New York,” “F.I.S.T.,” “Paradise Alley,” “Butch and Sundance: The Early Days,” “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” “Frances,” “Ghostbusters,” “Legal Eagles,” “Say Anything,” “Shattered,” “Radio Flyer,” “Multiplicity,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Little Nikita,” “Jack Frost” and “Miss Congeniality.” His last feature was “Two Weeks Notice” in 2002.
He received the American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 and led the ASC’s education committee.
He is survived by his wife, Audrey, and two daughters.