By Arthur H. Gunther III
When you are a newspaper photographer, you are like a stage or film director – you set up shots, scenes that capture, it is hoped, the essence, the nut, the who, what, when, where, why and how of an event, occurrence, etc.
That surely was the way I worked as a lensman for The Journal-News, a daily paper in Rockland County, N.Y., some years back. Today the focus is less on such set-up shots and more on capturing the moment candidly, ostensibly so you do not “manage” the moment, so you do not add artificiality or even the hint of a staged check-passing photo.
Actually, we photogs of the 1960s at The JN – Ken Muise, Andy Dickerman, Al Witt, Warren Inglese and I – never clicked away at check-passing moments, and we tried not to over-direct or stage a set-up so that it became cliché. Most of the time, we took what Al properly terms “posed candids,” which simply meant you observed a scene and maybe moved a person to keep from cutting someone else’s head off. The result was the better telling of a story, in my view.
But no matter what the approach, the shot must say something.
That’s what I was trying to do one hot summer afternoon in Nyack, N.Y., at the former Tappan Zee Playhouse, a seasonal theater off a street called Broadway.
The play was “Three Men on a Horse,” a 1930s comedy in three acts by John C. Holm and George Abbott. The director was Sam Levene, his fifth Tappan Zee appearance, Levene not only directed “Three Men On A Horse,” but reprised his original starring Broadway and film role as Patsy, a professional if not always successful gambler. Bert Parks co-starred as Erwin in the farce Levene originated on Broadway in 1935 that at the time was the longest running comedy, running 835 performances.
Levene was principally a character actor – gangster, detective, neighborhood colorful figure – of the 1930s and ’40s, a balding man with a mustache and a sharp New York City attitude and accent. He was excellent in his work, especially when he hit Broadway in the original “Guys and Dolls.”
The fine actor was directing when I walked into the cool, darkened theater for 10 or 15 minutes. I was there to do a publicity photograph for the summer stock play, soon to open. I quickly grabbed a few actors – my standard approach, for I wanted a tight close-up to dramatize the play rather than a bird’s-eye view of 10 thespians on a stage, taken from the tenth row.
I had composed many such photos and enjoyed theater publicity, for you could be a bit more creative with play shots, using natural or “available light,” and the actors were just perfect, ready with all manner of great expression, unlike most living photographic subjects. So very easy to “direct.”
Usually the director knew I was coming and would let me do my thing, recognizing that I, as a professional, was a “director,” too. He or she would step back as a “second unit” director, helping if needed.
Not Sam Levene. He was just like one of his tough film or stage characters, grabbing me by the arm and interrupting the shot. “I am the director here,” he said. “In my theater, I set up the shots.”
Well, Sam set up the shot he wanted – not unlike my own – but I worked the angle my way since I was the cameraman, not him. We used the same three actors I was already “directing,” and the photography went quickly, allowing Sam to go back to his main directing job.
I chuckled as I left the playhouse, adding Sam Levene to the long list of characters – famous and seemingly ordinary – that you meet as a news photog.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at email@example.com. This column originally appeared on Jan. 22, 2007.
The author’s recollection is in error; legendary Broadway and film star Sam Levene starred and directed ”Three Men On A Horse”, at the time, the fifth of his six total Tappan Zee appearances; Levene starred in all six Tappan Zee productions, directing five of the shows.
Originally known as Sammy Levine early in his career, Levene changed the “i” to an “e” in his surname to avoid confusion at Actor’s Equity, the theatrical union, with another actor at the time using the name “Sam Levine” so Sam decided to spell “Levene” phonetically.
July 25,1960-August 6, 1960
Sam Levene reprised his original Broadway performance as Sid Gray in the Norman Barasch and Carroll Moore comedy ”Make a Million”, a production Levene directed; ”Make a Million” was a bona-fide hit Broadway hit Levene originally performed on Broadway 308 times during the 1958/59 season.
August 19, 1963- August 24, 1963
Sam Levene recreated his original Broadway role as Morris Seidman in the Elick Moll comedy “Seidman and Son” Levene directed based on Moll’s 1958 best selling novel that Levene originally performed during the 1962 Broadway season.
July 31, 1967-August 5, 1967
Sam Levene recreated his lauded starring Broadway performance as Dr. Jack Kingsley, a psychiatrist in “The Impossible Years“, a comedy he directed at the Tappan Zee Playhouse. Levene starred as Dr. Jack Kingsley 322 times on Broadway and later headlined and starred in the national company.
July 29, 1968-August 3,1968
In 1968 Sam Levene starred as Walter Hollander, the male lead along with Marjorie Lord from TV’s “Make Room From Daddy“ fame in Woody Allen’s hit comedy “Don’t Drink The Water“, Levene directed at Tappan Zee before headlining and directing the national company.
July 28, 1969-Aug 2, 1969
For his fifth Tappan Zee appearance, Sam Levene not only directed “Three Men On A Horse“, but reprised his original starring Broadway and film role as Patsy, a professional if not always successful gambler. Bert Parks co-starred as Erwin in “Three Men on a Horse“, a farce Sam Levene originated on Broadway in 1935 that at the time was the longest running comedy, running 835 performances. In 1936 Levene reprised his role as Patsy in “Three Men on a Horse “ when he made his motion picture debut in the film version directed and produced by Mervyn LeRoy.
July 26, 1971-July 31, 1971
Sam Levene, Kitty Carlisle, Ruth McDevitt, Paul Ford starred in the Moss Hart comedy “Light Up The Sky“ in 1971. Levene starred as Sidney Black, a theatrical producer, a role he originated on Broadway in 1948 and recreated in 1949 on TV for The Ford Theatre Hour.
Learn more about Sam Levene:
American Film Institute
Thank you, sir, for correcting my column on the wonderful Sam Levine. He was one of my favorite actors growing up watching the Hollywood movies in their great heyday. When I met him in Nyack, as a photographer for a local newspaper, he was as commanding as his characters in the films. It was an honor to meet him. Thank you for setting the record straight and for adding such invaluable information.