Phil Hymes, ‘Saturday Night Live’ Lighting Director, Dies at 96

Longtime “Saturday Night Live” director Phil Hymes died Monday, an NBC spokesperson confirmed to Variety. He was 96.

Hymes, who began his career at NBC in 1951, starting work at “SNL” during its second season in 1976. He worked on more than 500 episodes of NBC’s venerable sketch comedy program and served as its lighting director until last year. In addition to his technical work, Hymes appeared in sketches during episodes hosted by Ralph Nader in 1977, Christopher Walken in 2000, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in 2006.

He broke records during his extensive career, becoming the oldest person to win an Emmy in 2018 for outstanding lighting design and lighting direction for a variety series for his work on Kevin Hart’s “SNL” episode. He also won an Emmy for Hallmark Hall of Fame television film “The Magnificent Yankee” in 1965 for outstanding individual achievements in entertainment centered on lighting design. Over the span of his career, he earned a total of 10 Emmy nominations, breaking a second record for winning trophies 53 years apart.

Before settling on lighting design, Hymes started out in majoring in chemistry at New York University before ultimately leaving to pursue theater acting. He changed his vocation again, serving in World War II in the U.S. Army as a master sergeant in the Signal Corps. When he came home in 1949, he went back to school at Adelphi University. He started at NBC shortly after in 1951.

He was also known for his work in 1951 running the lighting for “Today” show host Dave Garroway, and later for “Late Night With Seth Meyers” and “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” Hymes worked on set for a ’80s and ’90s show “Kids in The Hall,” a 2010 live episode of NBC’s “30 Rock” with Tiny Fey and Alec Baldwin, “Your Hit Parade,” “Sing Along With Mitch,” “The Bell Telephone Hour,” and Tony Awards telecasts, the latter hearkening back to his love of theater. He also ran the lighting design for the 1960 Richard Nixon vs. John Kennedy presidential debate.

“SNL” creator Lorne Michaels paid tribute to Hymes, saying, “Phil was at the creative center of ‘SNL’ from the day he arrived in 1976. His taste, wit and style imbued the show with an elegance that defined the look of ‘SNL’ from its earliest days to the way it looks today. He was a force to be reckoned with and his presence and strength were something I came to rely on. He will be missed, but if God has him now, despite all the arguing, Heaven will be much better lit.”

Jimmy Fallon recalled working with Hymes on “The Tonight Show.” “He just had the best eye for lighting. The best,” Fallon said. “He was truly a master of his craft. One of the most talented and brutally honest people I’ll ever meet. I wish I could have one more drink with him (Macallan 18) and have him tell me to take my freaking hat off during blocking. (Of course, he didn’t say “freaking.”)  Guests of ‘The Tonight Show’ would often compliment our lighting. That was Phil Hymes. I’m gonna miss that rascal.”

Mike Shoemaker, showrunner for “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” offered condolences on social media.

“My dear friend Phil Hymes passed yesterday,” he wrote on Twitter. “He was the lighting director for SNL since forever and Jimmy and Seth and everyone else you know who is well-lit. He was ornery and opinionated and truly hilarious.”

Hymes was born in 1923 and grew up on Long Island, New York. He was predeceased by his wife of over 60 years, Virginia. He is survived by his three children, Thomas, Janna and Jeff, as well as several grandchildren.

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