Oscar Artists: Kovacs, Laszlo–Seminal Cinematographer

July 24, 2007–Laszlo Kovacs, the cinematographer who lensed such seminal films as “Easy Rider” and popular pictures like “Ghostbusters” died Saturday in his sleep in Beverly Hills. He was 74.

James Chressanthis, who is working on a documentary, “Laszlo & Vilmos,” about Kovacs and his friend of five decades, fellow Vilmos Zsigmond, said that Kovacs, a cancer survivor, was unble to make a Friday meeting with longtime associate Bob Rafelson.

“He was my soulmate, like a brother,” said Zsigmond. “We escaped together, we worked together, we helped each other. He was a great cinematographer.”

Kovacs was in his last year of school in his native Budapest when a revolt against the Communist regime began. With classmate Zsigmond, he borrowed a school camera and shot the conflict. They smuggled the footage into Austria and entered the U.S. as political refugees in 1957. Their footage was later featured in a CBS docu narrated by Walter Cronkite.

After working a series of menial jobs, Kovacs began working in TV, moving into features with “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.”

During the 1960s, he shot exploitation films (“The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill”), period curios (“Mondo Mod”) and Richard Rush low-budgeters–“A Man Called Dagger,” “Hell’s Angels On Wheels,” “Psych-Out” (both with Jack Nicholson) and “The Savage Seven.” Kovacs and Rush subsequently worked together on “Getting Straight” and “Freebie and the Bean.”

Kovacs then lensed Peter Bogdanovich’s debut “Targets,” Altman’s “That Cold Day in the Park,” Dennis Hopper’s seminal “Easy Rider” and Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces.” When Kovacs shot “Easy Rider, it was like a revolution in Hollywood, because it didn’t look like studio movies.

In the 1970s, Kovacs shot for Bogdanovich the docu “Directed by John Ford,” “What’s Up, Doc,” “Paper Moon,” “At Long Last Love,” “Nickelodeon” and “Mask.” He worked again with Hopper on “The Last Movie” and with Rafelson on “The King of Marvin Gardens.”

During that decade he also worked with Paul Mazursky on “Alex in Wonderland,” Hal Ashby on “Shampoo,” Scorsese on “New York, New York” and “The Last Waltz,” and Arthur Penn on “Inside Moves.” He also contributed footage to Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” for which Zsigmond won an Oscar.

In the 1980s, Kovacs moved into mainstream fare such as “Huckleberry Finn,” “For Pete’s Sake,” “Harry and Walter Go to New York,” “F.I.S.T.,” “Paradise Alley,” “Frances,” “Ghostbusters,” “Legal Eagles,” and “Miss Congeniality.” His last feature was “Two Weeks Notice” in 2002.

Kovacs received the American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.