FALMOUTH, Mass. — Gordon Willis, one of Hollywood’s most celebrated and influential cinematographers, nicknamed “The Prince of Darkness” for his subtle but indelible touch on such definitive 1970s releases as “The Godfather,” “Annie Hall” and “All the President’s Men,” has died. He was 82.
His wife, Helen, said Willis died Sunday of cancer at their Cape Cod home.
Through much of the 1970s, Willis was the cameraman relied on by some of Hollywood’s top directors during one of filmmaking’s greatest eras. Francis Ford Coppola used him for the first two “Godfather” movies, Woody Allen for “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” and Alan J. Pakula for “Klute” and “All the President’s Men.”
During a remarkable run from 1971 to 1977, films he worked on won 19 Oscars and were nominated 39 times, from best picture for “The Godfather” and “Annie Hall” to acting for Jane Fonda in “Klute” and John Houseman in “The Paper Chase.” Yet Willis never won a competitive Oscar and was nominated just twice, for Allen’s “Zelig” and for Coppola’s “The Godfather, Part III,” which came out in 1990. An outsider by choice, Willis refused to live in California and told People magazine in 1983 that he had no interest in being rewarded “for spending time on the golf course or attending dinner parties.”
The academy presented him an honorary award in 2009, noting “his willingness to fly in the face of convention.”
Few directors of photography so ably demonstrated that a story could be told through the picture itself, whether the hushed, darkened opening of “The Godfather”; the bland, jaded sunshine of Los Angeles in “Annie Hall”; or the shadowy encounters with Deep Throat in “All the President’s Men.” He liked filming in the late afternoon, when the sun was dimming, and had a feel for capturing melancholy and the distant past.
Willis’ trademarks were simplicity, the contrast of light and dark, and a willingness to break the rules. He would remember encountering resistance during the first “Godfather” movie when he suggested obscuring Marlon Brando’s features and was told that was not the way things were done.
“That’s not a good enough reason,” Willis later said. “There were times when we didn’t want the audience to see what was going on in there (Brando’s eyes), and then suddenly, you let them see into his soul for a while.”
He continued to collaborate with Allen in the ‘80s, filming in black and white for the period film “Broadway Danny Rose” and indulging pure make-believe with the mockumentary “Zelig.”
“Working with Woody was like working with your hands in your pockets,” Willis told the industry publication Below the Line in 2003. “No yelling, just an easy exchange of ideas.”
Allen said in a statement, “Gordy was a huge talent and one of the few people who truly lived up to all the hype about him.”
Willis had a far rougher relationship with the mercurial Coppola, who savored excess as much as Willis valued restraint. They clashed often during the first “Godfather” as Coppola encouraged the actors to improvise and Willis worried about falling behind schedule. Coppola complained at the time that Willis was grumpy, but he also called him a genius.
By “The Godfather, Part II,” released in 1974, Willis and Coppola had learned to get along, and Willis’ camera work would be credited with giving all three “Godfather” movies an uncanny sense of continuity.
Willis ended his career with Pakula’s “The Devil’s Own” from 1997, later explaining he got “tired of trying to get actors out of trailers, and standing in the rain.”
A native of New York City, Willis was the son of a Warner Bros. makeup man. By his late teens his passion was photography, “which cost my father a lot of money.” He spent his 20s on fashion shoots in Greenwich Village and served in the Air Force during the Korean War, making training films.
He and his wife, Helen, married in 1955. They had three children and five grandchildren.
“He was a very, very good cinematographer who left a lasting impression on a lot of people, and he was a mentor for a lot of people,” Helen Willis said.
After working on documentaries and TV commercials in the 1960s, Willis broke through into feature films as director of photography for Aram Avakian’s X-rated cult movie “The End of the Road.” He soon caught the attention of such rising filmmakers as Pakula, Coppola and Hal Ashby, who hired Willis for his first movie, “The Landlord.”