Haskell Wexler, Oscar-Winning Cinematographer and Documentary Filmmaker, Dies at 93

Haskell Wexler Obit Dead
L. Cohen/WireImage

Influential cinematographer and social documentarian Haskell Wexler, who won Oscars for his work in both arenas, has died. He was 93.

Wexler’s death on Sunday was confirmed with a post on the HaskellWexler.com blog. His son Jeff shared via Facebook that Wexler died “peacefully in his sleep.”

“An amazing life has ended but his lifelong commitment to fight the good fight, for peace, for all humanity, will live on,” Jeff Wexler wrote.

Haskell Wexler won two Oscars for cinematography, for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in 1966 and for “Bound for Glory” 10 years later.

He also shared cinematography credit with Richard Pearce for the Oscar award-winning short documentary “Interviews With My Lai Veterans.”

Wexler also wrote, directed and largely financed two feature films, the highly politically charged “Medium Cool” in 1969 and “Latino” in 1985. He also directed 2007’s “From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks,” an adaptation of a play about labor leader Harry Bridges and unionization.

“We are deeply saddened by the death of one of our most esteemed board members,” said International Cinematographers Guild President Steven Poster. “Haskell’s cinematography has always been an inspiration to so many of us not only in the Guild, but in the entire industry.”

His cool, uncluttered but visually distinct style grew out of his years as an educational and industrial filmmaker, which led to his photographing of documentaries such as Joseph Strick’s “The Savage Eye” in 1959. He continued to invest his own money in films that promoted causes because he saw them “as an instrument for social change,” he said.

Even in the vast number of commercial television spots he shot (he was partnered in commercial companies with cinematographers such as Vilmos Zsigmond and Conrad Hall), he was concerned about “the morality of the products,” he once told Variety. He stopped shooting cigarette commercials long before they were banned on U.S. television (though he had lensed most of the famous Marlboro commercials).

Wexler’s devotion to such causes belied his wealthy upbringing. “One person has a responsibility not just for himself but for inter-relationships with the existences of others and the world,” he once explained. That view not only informed his documentaries but was consistent with the subject matter of many of his feature assignments.

Wexler joined the International Photographers Guild in 1947. He co-directed and shot documentary short “The Living City” in 1953 with John Barnes; it was nominated for an Oscar. He worked into the Hollywood system starting with Roger Corman’s 1957 independent feature “Stakeout on Dope Street,” directed by Irvin Kershner, and several other low-budget films. He also worked as an assistant cameraman on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”

The stature of his film assignments began to grow with “The Hoodlum Priest” and “Angel Baby” in 1961. By 1964, he was working with top directors including Elia Kazan (“America, America”), Franklin Schaffner (“The Best Man”) and Tony Richardson (“The Loved One”). His crisp black-and-white photography for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” brought Wexler his first Oscar.

Over the next several years he would photograph several of the most memorable films of the era (all in color), including “In the Heat of the Night,” “The Conversation,” “American Graffiti” and (with the uncredited Bill Butler) “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” for which he was Oscar nominated.

In 1976 he copped his second Oscar for “Bound for Glory”; he would go on to photograph other Hal Ashby films including “Coming Home,” “Second Hand Hearts” and “Lookin’ to Get Out.” He also contributed some work to Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.”

Through the ’80s and ’90s, he shot films including “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip,” “Colors,” “Other People’s Money” and “The Rolling Stones: Live at the Max” in 1992. He was nominated for cinematography Oscars for “Matewan” in 1988 and “Blaze” in 1990.

Later feature films he lensed included “The Secret of Roan Inish,” “Canadian Bacon,” “Mulholland Falls” and “The Rich Man’s Wife,” all in the mid-’90s.

One of his most influential films, the chilling 1969 feature “Medium Cool,” was a fictional but documentary-style depiction of the riots outside the 1968 Democratic Convention. Bold in attitude and execution, “Medium Cool” was financed by Wexler for $800,000. Although it owed a nod to the work of Jean-Luc Godard, it was far ahead of its time for a Hollywood film.

Beginning with his documentary on the Washington Freedom March, “The Bus,” in 1965, Wexler busied himself with documentaries of social injustice. He shot “Interview With My Lai Veterans,” directed by Joseph Strick, which won an Oscar in 1970. With co-director Saul Landau he shot “Brazil: A Report on Torture” and “An Interview with President Allende” (both 1971), “The Swine Flu Caper,” “The CIA Case Officer,” 1982’s “Quest for Power: Sketches of the American New Right” and “Target Nicaragua: Inside a Secret War.”

Other documentaries included “Hail Columbia” and “Introduction to the Enemy.” He also shot the 1980 film “No Nukes.” His 1975 documentary “Underground” (with Emile de Antonio and Mary Lampson), which dealt with the leftist faction known as the Weathermen, resulted in a controversial attempt at seizure of his materials by the FBI, which prompted an outcry among certain social-minded Hollywood celebrities.

Later documentaries he helmed included “Bus Rider’s Union,” directed with Johanna Demetrakas; “Who Needs Sleep,” about the danger to film crews of overlong shooting schedules that result in fatigue — and people falling asleep on the road home; and 2013’s “Four Days in Chicago,” in which he returned to the setting of “Medium Cool” and his hometown to document the Occupy Movement’s demonstrations against the 2012 NATO Summit.

In the mid to late 2000s, he was d.p. on a number of politically minded documentaries for other directors.

Wexler appeared in numerous documentaries about other directors and cinematographers, including 1992’s “Visions of Light.”

He was born in Chicago and spent five years in the Merchant Marines, after which he studied at UC Berkeley.

Wexler was honored with lifetime achievement awards from the American Society of Cinematographers (becoming the first active lenser to be so honored), the Independent Documentary Assn. and the the Society of Operating Cameramen.

In 1996 he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the first cinematographer in 35 years to be so honored.

In 2005, Wexler was the subject of a documentary, “Tell Them Who You Are,” directed by his son, Mark Wexler. His son Jeff works as a sound mixer.

In addition to his sons, Wexler is survived by third wife Rita Taggart, an actress and cinematographer, and a daughter, Kathy.

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  1. Barbara Dane says:

    Forgive me Variety, but I don’t get to movies often anymore at age 88 and don’t follow Hollywood action either. However, I have known about Haskell’s stupendous work for decades, although I was only with him face to face 2-3 times. But in the last year he has phoned me frequently, insisting he was going to film my 90th Birthday concert. I countered, well, but Haskell, you’re already over 90 and that’s a bit of a way off. Why not film the launch of my new CD at Yoshi’s jazz club in Oakland on January 25 instead.

    He thought that was a great idea and we have been telling the world he was coming. Now, very sadly, we will dedicate the occasion to his memory instead. My generation is dwindling fast, but the loss of giants like Wexler is like a library burn down. We lose so much more than we know. Our solace is that he has influenced so many with his work, with his integrity, his willingness to take risks for what he believed in, his honesty and all the rest, and this means he is immortal.

    Goodnight, dear Haskell.
    Barbara Dane

    • Judy Polan says:

      Dear Barbara, My condolences to you on the loss of your great friend. I hope that you will not consider this to be an inappropriate forum for posting this message, but I wanted to tell you that many years ago — probably in the 1960s — I went to see you perform at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs. Your car broke down on the NYS Thruway, and Lena spotted me in the audience (I had auditioned for her several weeks before then) and asked if I would sing until you got there, which you eventually did. It was a wonderful night and certainly a singular moment in my life. I’m so glad to know that you are still well and performing! As you so beautifully said, the loss of giants is like a library burnt down. Live long and prosper! My very best, Judy Polan http://www.judypolan.com

  2. JimmyFitz says:

    Haskell was an awesome man. He always had time for everybody. Our first conversation went-on for a couple hours when I expected to introduce myself. God Bless Haskell. Rest in Peace.

  3. Eyeaye says:

    Wexler was one of the greatest of all time and a great role model. Correction though: Bill Butler is the DP of record for ‘The Converstion.’

    Wexler worked for just a short time on The Conversation before Butler took over. The vast majority of of the film is Butler’s footage, though Wexler did shoot the iconic opening sequence.

  4. Chizz says:

    He contribited “some work” on Days of Heaven? Wexler famously claimed over half of the movie is actually his footage and he should have shared the Oscar with Almendros.

  5. Pamela says:

    This man was a giant in the movie industry. He had a style all his own and if you read his name in the movie credits, you knew the cinematography would be beautiful and extraordinarily well done. He leaves us a lasting legacy of all the movies and documentaries he worked on. We’re going to miss his artistry. We already do.

  6. Ken says:

    An artist of uncommon vision, excellence and conscience. To me, he – along with Gordon Willis – helped define an exciting time in American cinema. The industry has lost a towering figure…and as a film lover and historian, I feel like I’ve lost a friend. My condolences to his family and colleagues.

  7. Bill B. says:

    I wasn’t aware that he was still alive. A great career.

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