Brianne Murphy, 70; Pioneering Woman Behind the Camera

Times Staff Writer

Brianne Murphy, a Hollywood trailblazer who became the first female director of photography invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers, has died. She was 70.

The award-winning Murphy, who was diagnosed with metastatic brain cancer in the spring, died Aug. 20 at her condominium in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, according to her half sister, Sandra Dresdner, her sole survivor.

Murphy won a Daytime Emmy Award in 1978 for best cinematography for “Five Finger Discount,” an NBC Afternoon Special. She also earned prime-time Emmy nominations for outstanding cinematography for the series “Breaking Away” in 1981, the series “Highway to Heaven” in 1985 and the PBS special “There Were Times, Dear” in 1987.

In 1982, Murphy shared an Academy Award of Merit with Donald Schisler of Mitchell Insert Systems Inc. for the concept, design and manufacture of the MISI camera insert car and process trailer, a specially designed vehicle with dozens of safety features to protect film technicians while shooting close-ups of moving vehicles that are inserted into action sequences.

Admitted to the cinematographers guild in 1973, Murphy became the first female director of photography in the Hollywood local, as well as a member of its executive board, according to the 1997 book “Women Behind the Camera.”


She recalled her struggle to gain admittance to the guild in a 1991 interview with People magazine. She said one union official told her: “My wife don’t drive a car, and you’re not going to operate a camera. You’ll get in over my dead body.”

“Well,” Murphy recalled, “he died.”

In 1980, she became the first female director of photography on a major studio feature -- “Fatso,” Anne Bancroft’s first feature as a writer-director.

The same year, Murphy was invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers, a 265-member trade organization. With her death, there are now five female members.

“Brianne Murphy should be remembered for her artful cinematography in such classic television series as ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ ‘Trapper John, M.D.,’ ‘Highway to Heaven,’ ‘Father Murphy’ and ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ ” ASC President Richard Crudo said in a statement.

He called Murphy, who for many years was on the ASC board of directors, “a powerful source of inspiration for the current generation of female cinematographers, who have followed the trail that she courageously blazed. We will miss her spirit.”

For 15 years, Murphy was the only female member of the society.

“This woman was a pioneer, and she certainly raised the bar for women in this field,” said Judy Irola, a director of photography, an ASC member and the head of cinematography at USC’s School of Cinema-Television.

“She did something that nobody had done before,” Irola said. “Women had directed, but women weren’t seen as serious technicians.”

Murphy was a founder of Women in Film and a founding member of Behind the Lens, an organization of female film technicians.

Upon receiving the Women in Film Lucy Award for Innovation in Television in 1995, Murphy told the audience that when she started, “there were no film schools, no role models. The secrets of the trade were passed down from generation to generation and, let’s face it, from father to son.”

“We’ve come a long way,” she said, “but we must continue to reach out to women and know that the road less traveled is worth the effort.”

Murphy was born to American parents in London on April 1, 1933. With the outbreak of war in 1939, the family moved back to the United States. Murphy attended Pembroke College (now Brown University) in Providence, R.I., but left in the early 1950s to study acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City.

In 1954, she and another struggling actress dressed up as clowns and crashed opening night of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden, where they performed as clowns for four hours.

The resulting publicity -- everything from Look magazine to Movietone News did stories on their exploit after they told the New York Times about it -- landed her a job as assistant to the circus’ photographer. That, in turn, led her to Hollywood, where she met low-budget horror film producer Jerry Warren, whom she later married and divorced.

Warren offered Murphy a $50-a-week job handling props, makeup, hair, wardrobe, script and stills on the 1956 film “Man Beast.”

She even wore the furry costume of an abominable snowman (a white gorilla suit from Western Costume) in a couple of scenes but was too short for the suffocating rubber suit.

When the director of photography volunteered to take over wearing the suit, Murphy said in a 1996 interview with Fangoria magazine, he handed his light meter to Murphy, who had been pumping him for information about his job, and said she would have to shoot the scene. In accepting a Crystal Award for professional achievement in movies and TV from Women in Film in 1984, Murphy remembered producers in the early 1960s calling her up and asking to speak to “Brian” Murphy.

“I’d lower my voice on the phone and get the job,” she said. “When I showed up on the set, it was too late to fire me.” Once, while Murphy was filming a news conference, then-Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Evelle J. Younger asked whether her camera equipment wasn’t too heavy. She finally replied, “No heavier than carrying a child.”