DP Richard Rawlings Jr. and Unit Stills Bruce McBroom relive the “good old days” of network television
Historians say the romance of creating filmed entertainment ended in the late 1960s, when the studio system fell apart. Surely the safety net that came with being a contract player (and full-time craft department member) dropped away, but with the wide open nature of the industry new avenues emerged Like network television, where legends-in-the-making like Aaron Spelling begun setting up new production families on escapist shows that preached fun over social drama. And, as sales of color TVs boomed, leaking into every room in the nuclear home, the demand for product increased – and so did the job market.
Talk to Guild members who were there, and they’ll say the network TV production boom peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with everything from thought provoking M*A*S*H episodes to the soft-core bubbly of Charlie’s Angels. Television was fun to watch, and, more importantly, fun to make. Walk onto the Fox lot and you might see the stars and crew from Starsky and Hutch tossing Frisbees around on their breaks. Need to stop in and say hello to someone at Universal? Not a problem if Scotty was at the gate. He knew everyone in Hollywood – and ushered each one into fantasyland with a flourish. And that mechanical clink-clank as you looked for a parking space at Warner’s probably meant a marathon pinball game was happening in the writers’ building.
Smack in the middle of all this insanity were two very different Guild craftsmen: cinematographer Dick Rawlings Jr., ASC, and unit stills photographer Bruce McBroom. Although they crossed paths only briefly (compared to the longevity of their careers), it was at the peak of TV’s best era, when cultural, political, and technological boundaries were being tested – in front of and behind the cameras.
McBroom, who just celebrated his 42nd year in the industry, may be best known for his one-sheet images for such landmark features as E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, The Hunt for Red October, and Sleepless in Seattle. Although he started as an assistant to famed Hollywood celebrity photographer Sid Avery, his career really began as a day-player for ABC-TV, shooting shows like The Mod Squad, Starsky and Hutch and Charlie’s Angels.
Rawlings, on the other hand, grew up in Hollywood, under the tutelage of his father, Richard Rawlings, Sr., a cinematography hero even before his son had met him. [Rawlings Sr. served in the Navy Motion Picture Unit during World War II, and was off documenting the war when his son was born. The pair had an emotional first meeting near San Diego’s harbor when Rawlings Jr. was three and his dad returned from the war.]
When Rawlings Sr. entered the movie industry, he did it with all his soul (and sometimes even his body). He shot everything from the wild opening titles of Victory at Sea to television series such as The Cisco Kid, Gilligan’s Island, The Wild Wild West, Sea Hunt, Kung Fu, Dynasty and, Charlie’s Angels. Rawlings Jr. says he was along for the entire ride, learning from his father and friends like the legendary Teddy Voigtlander.
“I remember the first thing that my dad said to Teddy, when I joined his team,” Rawlings Jr. recalls. “’Don’t give him any breaks and make sure he pays attention’. I knew they wanted me to be the best I could be,” Rawlings Jr. recalls.
“My father and I were there for some interesting changes in the industry,” he adds. “I started with old Mitchell cameras and follow focus finders. Then this ‘little’ company called Panavision was formed and the camera revolution began. Their first camera was a ‘reflexed’ Mitchell. It wasn’t until Bob Gottschalk took over Panavision that shooting changed with the Panaflex, which could be used studio/dolly/handheld and was a sound camera.”
In fact, Rawlings Jr. was the first assistant to work with the Panaflex on a television series called The Cowboys. When Charlie’s Angels hit the airwaves, father and son were shooting The Blue Night, mostly handheld with the Panaflex.
“It was an interesting show but we were up against this new phenomenon,” Rawlings Jr. recalls. “When The Blue Night got cancelled, and we heard that the cameraman who shot the first season of Charlie’s Angels was leaving, I gave my father a shove – ‘Call your agent. Make sure Spelling knows you are available.’ It was probably my father’s years with The Doris Day Show that sold Spelling. My dad was brought over – and he brought along his crew, including me as operator.
“That first day was crazy!” Rawlings Jr. continues. “Before 10 in the morning my father got into a fight with the director, who was trying to tell him how to photograph the show and where to put the camera. My dad got so mad he set up the camera then went to the restroom – leaving me there! When the director started screaming, I asked if I cold help. He said my father had them behind – which, of course, we weren’t.”
The storyline, as Rawlings Jr. recounts, involved the Angels trying to find out who was sabotaging a circus. Famed stuntman Buddy Joe Hooker was to do a motorcycle stunt off a ramp, and hit the grass below. The episode’s director wanted him to slide towards the camera – an Arriflex equipped with a 10-to-1 zoom that would quickly pull out from 250 millimeter to 25-millimeter.
“My dad told him it wasn’t right; that there would be a loss of action making such a quick zoom,” Rawlings Jr. states. “But the director demanded the camera be under the ramp and have the bike slide on the grass, which my father and Buddy Joe knew would be very dangerous and unpredictable. After awhile, I got so tired of arguing with the director, about the camera placement, that I, foolishly, just got under the ramp. The dolly grip, Rick Cardin, was holding onto my belt as my safety.”
Hooker did the stunt, and Rawlings Jr. zoomed out just as the bike hit the grass. “The next thing I knew, Rick was pulling me away from the camera,” he explains. “The bike had taken out the camera and part of the ramp I was under, and a loose two-by-four plank had split my head open!
“The nurse came over and they called the paramedics,” he continues. “Buddy Joe was very upset; he didn’t want anyone hurt. They got me on a gurney and put me in an ambulance. Even before I was off the location, the director turned around to the rest of the crew with a ‘let’s get the day’s work done.’ The other operator, John Conner, pinned the director against the Honey Wagon. ‘When they call us and say he’s okay – we’ll go back to work,’ he told him. We were a family. We looked out for each other.”
Rawlings Jr. says such an incident is unlikely today. “Producers have turned over the responsibility of safety to each department head, so a cameraman just wouldn’t put his crew or himself in harm’s way. He would stand up to the director if asked to execute a dangerous shot. But back then the safety standards were not in place, and as long as we gave them what they wanted, the studio execs left us alone.”
McBroom was also a part of the Angels crew. As a shooter for ABC-TV he floated around all the network shows – and worked with the different camera teams. “I’d walk in the door and it was like old home week,” McBroom recalls. “Everyone was glad to see me. Even the actors wanted to help. It’s true, as Dick said: The suits left us alone.
“Sometimes too alone!” he laughs. “I was shooting stills for Baretta and walked on to the set at Universal one day. When I took my camera bag off my shoulder and started unpacking, I looked up to see Robert Blake and these two big guys standing over me. ‘Put your camera away,’ Blake growled. I thought they were throwing me out but he was actually holding me hostage! Seriously. He had had some problems with ABC and the network had refused to send one of their VPs down to talk to him. So, he was going to hold me hostage until someone came down!
“I went to the stage phone and called my assignment editor,” McBroom continues. “It took what seemed like hours to convince the network that I wasn’t joking. Finally, the suits marched in about noon. Boy, did I grab my gear and run out the door!”
Rawlings Jr. confirms that network execs, and even producers, rarely showed up on the set. “I remember one Charlie’s Angels – the episode before we were supposed to leave for a series of shows in Hawaii,” he says. “The scene was in Bosley’s office, with the girls and Charlie on the phone. Aaron Spelling walked in and apologized for the interruption. ‘The show may be canceled,’ he explained. ‘We are in negotiations. You are all going home. And, if it gets canceled, you will be paid for two months work.’ Three days later we were all called back and a week later we were in Hawaii.”
The stories Rawlings Jr. and McBroom recount from their time in the Islands truly conjure up the giddy innocence of that era.
“I remember that we decided to get some footage as soon as we landed at the airport,” Rawlings Jr. begins. “We had an insert car towing a late 1970s Cadillac down the main boulevard in Waikiki. We were traveling back up the boulevard to unload and move onto another set. The actors couldn’t go anywhere. So, we decided to have a little fun and do the popular thing of the time – moon them! At the luau before we went home, Cheryl Ladd gave out a trophy for the best ‘moon job’. It’s still sitting on my shelf!”
“The photos from the set are priceless!” McBroom confirms.
“It was the end of the show where Bosley would say something funny and the girls would laugh and we’d freeze it,” Rawlings Jr. adds. “When we didn’t get the right frame we went in again. I leaned over and whispered to David Doyle [Bosley] to moon them. Well, he mooned them all right. He dropped his drawers to his ankles and the Angels got more than mooned! The look on Jacqueline’s face was priceless. Her eyes were wide open. The other girls closed their eyes. It just shows the fun that we had.”
“In those days we didn’t have blimped cameras,” McBroom recounts. “So we would photograph rehearsals and then get out of there. I remember doing a movie-of-the-week with several top television people, including Larry Hagman. I’d shot him on several other shows, so we knew each other. I walked in on the actors sitting around a table and immediately shot a dozen frames. The motor drive didn’t bother the actors, they were used to it. But the director went berserk. I’d ruined his movie! He threw me out.
“I went over to crafts services, figuring I wasn’t going to get anything for the rest of the day,” McBroom continues. “A little while later Larry came out and pulled me aside. He told me to take out my motor drive and he got out a pocket tape recorder. He had me run off a whole roll and then he went back into the set to do another angle. During the scene, Larry turns on the tape recording of the motor drive. The director called the shot – screaming; ‘Where is he? I’m going to kill him!’ When Larry put the tape recorder on the table, let’s just say, the director got no respect after that.”
And the stories don’t end there. There were the toga parties at the end of Charlie’s Angels’ shooting days, “where we decided to reinvent Pearl Harbor and dive bomb the parking kiosk below with egg rolls,” Rawlings Jr. recalls. “Next day on the call sheet it read, ‘when you have a party – please do not throw egg rolls at the parking guard’.”
Or the time when McBroom needed to get shots of Joan Crawford for a Universal TV movie. “Lenny South, ASC was the DP. He was a friend of actor David Bruce, who was my uncle. Lenny took me over to Ms. Crawford: ‘Hey, Joanie, there’s someone I want you to meet…’ Even with that introduction, she gave me the stink-eye. So, Lenny and the crew stayed through their lunch, lit her, and helped me get the shot. They didn’t even put it on their time cards.”
Those free wheeling days are long gone, and according to Rawlings Jr., not necessarily for the better. “TV schedules have always been tight,” he reflects. “But at least in the old days of single camera episodic we had the time to properly light and refine the shot. Once three-camera sitcoms took over, the writer had a lot more input on the set, including taking up a lot of the director’s time on script revisions. That style of working transferred back into single camera episodic in recent years, and the result was the director had virtually no time to collaborate with the DP to help set the look of the show. Once that collaboration was gone it just wasn’t fun anymore for me. So I moved on to new adventures.”
“The fun is gone,” McBroom concurs. “When I was on Charlie’s Angels, the first thing I’d do is walk into the make-up trailer and say hello to the girls. They would all be there, chatting, having fun as they sat all together in a row, their hair in curlers. There was an ease of working that you don’t find today because there are so many more people on the set worried about their actors.”
Rawlings Jr. – who officially retired to his property in southern Oregon a few years back but kept his name on the roster – has passed down his family legacy to his son, Guild loader Matt Rawlings. McBroom, now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, reports he’s gotten more selective on accepting jobs, adding that it needs to be “something special” to drag him away from those idyllic Southwestern sunsets.
Clearly, both men look back with great fondness and delight on a time when network television production was coming of age, and there was a magic in the air that made working on a union production crew the “best damn job in the world,” Rawlings Jr. laughs. “It really felt like one big crazy family. We were always having a ton of fun.”