Growing up among his native Brooklyn’s brick-and-fire-escape facades in the 1930’s, production designer-to-be Albert Brenner often dreamed of the wide open spaces depicted in his favorite Saturday-matinee Westerns. At 16, he landed his first “art job”: dressing windows for a New York City department store.
Two years later, Brenner swapped mannequins for military service and flew in B-24 bombers until World War II ended in 1945. On the G.I. Bill, he attended Yale University, graduating with skills in drafting, and went into summer stock theater under designer Samuel Leve, toiling away on plays like “The Fifth Season” and gaining a union card in the process.
He developed his designer chops in New York on TV shows like “The Phil Silvers Show,” “Car 54, Where Are You?” “Captain Kangaroo” and “Playhouse 90.” His first day on the Silvers show, where he eventually earned $250 a week, was nearly his last, when he got scolded by head writer Nat Hiken. Ordered to obtain a prop harmonica, Brenner returned with a ridiculously elaborate one. “Just a regular harmonica,” Hiken seethed. “Remember, I do the jokes around here!”
In the 1960s, working on features, Brenner experienced New York’s new age of location shooting on such pictures as Elia Kazan’s “Splendor in the Grass,” Sidney Lumet’s “The Fugitive Kind” and Richard Quine’s “How to Murder Your Wife.”
He was hired by production designer Harry Horner for Robert Rossen’s “The Hustler.” On that film he took to heart something Rossen told him: “The only thing important is what the camera sees.”
One night on Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker,” the picture’s practical location was robbed, causing a serendipitous artistic enhancement: The producers added security bars to prevent future occurrences, which created shadows that played as black stripes across actor Rod Steiger’s face during Holocaust flashback scenes.
Moving to Hollywood, Brenner designed for John Boorman’s “Point Blank,” where he incorporated a palette of gray tonal hues that contrasted with the searing white-hot acting of Lee Marvin, throwing it into relief — a vision that perfectly stylized the crime-is-cool genre. Boorman raved about the work to fellow Brit director Peter Yates, who hired Brenner for “Bullitt.” On that film he applied subdued primary colors, playing up the reds and browns of stop signs and Coke machines to showcase their contrast with actor Steve McQueen’s piercing blue eyes.
A decade of films followed, including “I Walk the Line,” “Monte Walsh” and “Summer of ’42.” It was for director Herbert Ross and writer Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” that Brenner received his first Oscar nomination for his designs of multi-sided adjoining rooms, allowing free-flowing camera movement and dialogue.
Drafted by Ross and Simon for “The Goodbye Girl,” Brenner again stretched hallways to sharpen comedic timing. Shadows built suspense and humor as Marsha Mason’s Paula knocked on the door to the room of Richard Dreyfuss’ Elliot to confront him about his late-night guitar playing — only to find him sitting nude behind the strategically placed instrument.
In Michael Crichton’s 1978 “Coma” and Peter Hyams’ 1984 “2010,” Brenner transferred his sensibilities from New York apartments to mystery and science fiction. On Ron Howard’s 1991 firefighting movie “Backdraft,” the designer used a studio tank and a three-sided enclosure to “sink” a flaming elevator around the actors, who stayed safe as the water rose.
With five Oscar nominations behind him, Brenner, now 92, paints self-portraits in his turpentine-scented studio, professing a weakness for rendering hands. “Now that I’m retired,” he says, laughing, “I can finally get them right!”