TV Pioneer Recalls Life Framed in a Camera Lens

Wharton is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Michael Freedman lay in wait, beneath the surface of the water, peering through a television camera.

The scene was the 1964 AAU Championships outside of San Francisco. Freedman, an ABC cameraman, was using an experimental underwater camera to get a submerged view of swimmers making the turn during a race.

As the swimmers drew closer, Freedman realized that the casing on his equipment was leaking. Water steadily filled the inside of the camera. Freedman knew that when the water reached a certain level, he and everyone else in the pool would be electrocuted.

But he wanted the shot.

"I held steady, they made the turn and I got out of that pool," Freedman recalls. "And I said a prayer of thanks."

Exciting enough. But what about the time when Freedman, shooting aerial footage off the coast of Honolulu, went down in a helicopter crash and was rescued by surfers?

Or the time when he stood his ground, camera running, as Ohio State University football coach Woody Hayes charged down the sidelines and punched him on national television?

"I hope all of this doesn't sound as though I seek out risks," Freedman says. "But it's not a dull job."

During the last 40 years, Freedman has consistently gotten himself into hot water by taking television audiences to places they've never been before. The Bell Canyon man was one of the first to use a miniaturized, hand-held camera in the early 1960s and since then has taken it everywhere he can think of.

Such bravado has earned Freedman nine Emmy Awards and a reputation as a pioneer in the field.

"He paints pictures like Michelangelo. He takes chances and he's got an incredible ability to capture what's going on," says ABC director Andy Sidaris, who has worked with Freedman since 1960. "He was one of the first guys, and he's the greatest cameraman I've ever known."

Freedman demurs, "They don't pay me to shoot the backs of people's heads. I always got the assignments that were oddball because they knew I would give it a shot."

These days, Freedman, 63, has traded his camera for a job as lighting director on "Facts of Life," an NBC sitcom filmed at ABC's studios. He is devoted to the work and proudly describes some new color gels--shaded filters to fit over spotlights--he has selected to light an upcoming episode.

Yet he speaks wistfully of camera work. Whenever he sees a rolling landscape, a beautiful sunset, an interesting person, Freedman wants to put a frame around that scene. It is through the simply defined parameters of a camera lens that he prefers to view life.

"Watching a good cameraman at work is like watching light change on a face," he says. "It's like listening to music. It's a sensuous pleasure."

The images he recalls from a career, people mostly, remain vivid.

"The camera is like an X-ray machine. You can tell what makes a person tick," he says. "There's a certain intensity and tenacity about Reggie Jackson. Muhammad Ali was a gentle, kind man. He had a lot of warmth."

Nine Olympic Games and 10 Republican and Democratic conventions have passed before Freedman's camera lens. Scenes from the past linger: the outrageous joy of convention-floor celebrations, the snowy grandeur of the biathlon in the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France, the heraldry of the Queen's Cup Rugby Final in London. He speaks with embarrassed awe of seeing the Statue of Liberty through his camera last summer.

"Michael is always searching for the human factor," says Keith Jackson, an ABC sports announcer. "It's part of his soul."

The trademark is the shaved head. People recognize it everywhere.

"He looks like Khrushchev," Sidaris says.

Study a photograph of the sidelines at any major sporting event or convention over the last 20 years and you are likely to see that head, with a camera tucked on the shoulder.

No longer burdened with such duty, Freedman remains tan and fit. He is a short, sturdy man: 5 feet, 9 inches, 160 pounds.

"I see myself without any wrinkles. I'm solid," Freedman boasts, pulling up a sleeve and flexing a muscle. "My body is unbelievable."

The new job allows him to spend time with his wife, Alicia, in an expansive, hilltop home at the west end of the Valley. It was not that long ago when he would travel to a new country, sometimes a new continent, every week.

The den in his home displays memories in the form of photographs and mementos, among them, half a dozen Emmy Awards inauspiciously placed in out-of-the-way spots, or used as bookends.

"I'll tell you something that people don't realize," he says, pulling an Emmy down from a high shelf. "These things rust. Look here."

Trained in the Army

Trained to film newsreel footage for the Army, Freedman began working as a cameraman on "Pulitzer Prize Playhouse" in New York City in 1948. Alicia was a dancer and actress, so they eventually moved to Hollywood in 1954. Freedman worked on the "Lawrence Welk Show."

But it was the advent of the mhniaturized camera that gave Freedman the opportunity he wanted. In the early days, the hand-held camera caught people by surprise. No one knew what it was since they had never seen a television camera that small, one that could get shots of people being themselves.

Freedman used the experimental device to cover John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential campaign.

"I can recall lurking in a corridor, waiting for Mr. Nixon and his wife to come down to the convention floor. He saw me with the camera. I remember him turning in confusion to Pat and saying, 'What is that?' "

Freedman similarly caught Kennedy by surprise.

"He saw me, and a quizzical look crossed his face. Then his eyes sparkled, and he smiled. He figured out what it was."

It wasn't long before politicians, athletes and the public became accustomed to the miniature television camera.

Things have changed behind the camera, too. The directors are smarter, Freedman says; they know which shots they want. In the old days, cameramen worked by the seat of their pants.

Covering a convention in 1964, Freedman rushed into a crowd of celebrants. Crushed in the throng, he held the camera above his head and twisted it around to show a collage of faces. This shot has become standard in convention coverage.

Before there was such a thing as remote-control cameras, Freedman lay on the track at the Indianapolis 500, filming race cars as they screamed past not five feet away. Similarly, covering a stunt plane competition, he dug a pit and crouched down low with camera in hand as the planes flew scant feet overhead.

It was innovative work. But that same drive for the unique also makes Freedman stubborn and uncooperative.

"He's bull-headed and independent," Sidaris says. "But you like to have the guys who take chances. He always reaches beyond what you expect."

Jackson recalls arguments between Freedman and several directors.

"He was never submissive," Jackson says. "And oftentimes he was right."

One of Freedman's best-known acts of disobedience occurred at the 1962 U.S.A.-USSR track meet in Moscow, a competition organized during the early days of detente following the Cold War. Soviet officials told the ABC crew not to venture onto the field at Lenin Stadium.

Late in the meet, Russian high jumper Valery Brumel cleared a world-record height. Freedman ignored instructions and moved onto the track for a close-up of the athlete's reaction. He found himself straining against his camera cable and looked back to see where it had snagged. A member of the crew was standing firmly on the cable.

Had Freedman taken another step forward, the cable would have pulled taut against the high-jump standard and could well have knocked the bar down before officials had a chance to re-measure the height and confirm it as a record.

"I could have caused an international incident," he said.

Freedman was castigated by ABC officials at the scene. During the competition's closing ceremonies, he went back out on the track to get a close-up of American and Russian athletes holding hands. That scene has gone down as one of the most famous and poignant in the history of television sports coverage.

Despite such successes, achievements of 40 years in the business, Freedman is probably best known for what he considers to be a minor incident: the Woody Hayes punch.

Freedman was the sideline cameraman for the Ohio State-Michigan college football game that year, 1977. Ohio State was driving for a score late in the game but came up empty. Freedman zoomed in on the volatile Hayes.

"The story was Woody Hayes and that's where I pointed my camera," he says matter-of-factly. "No one likes photographers in an intimate moment when they are exposed."

Hayes did not hurt Freedman. But, because of the publicity the incident received, Freedman found that coaches and players became more aware of his presence on the sidelines. He could no longer get the candid shots he wanted.

That may have been the beginning of the end of his heyday as a cameraman.

Nowadays, Freedman accepts an occasional camera assignment. There is a suitcase, packed and ready at all times, in the trunk of his car. He might fly to San Diego to cover an event like Dennis Conner's return from the America's Cup races, or travel to Las Vegas to shoot a boxing match.

Freedman says that he does not want to sound bitter or remorseful, that he does not feel that way. This is simply a new era. One that is not his.

"I'm able to sit at home and admire the work of others," he says.

But the camera is still in his blood.

"When I go to the Federated Store and see all those home video cameras lined up on the shelves, I'm tempted to go up to the salesman and tell him that here is the man who was the first one to use these."

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