Robert ‘Buzz’ Knudson, 80; Won Academy Awards for Sound Mixing on ‘Cabaret,’ ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘E.T.’

Times Staff Writer

Robert “Buzz” Knudson, one of Hollywood’s most respected sound re-recording mixers and a three-time Academy Award-winner for his work on “Cabaret,” “The Exorcist” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” has died. He was 80.

Knudson died Jan. 21 in a nursing home in Columbia, S.C., from complications of progressive supranuclear palsy, a form of Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Jean.

Knudson spent most of his 50-year career at Todd-AO, an independent post-production sound company, which he joined in 1960 as a recording engineer doing optical transfers. He was president of the company from 1982 to 1990, then served as vice chairman and as a consultant until he retired in 2003.


As a sound re-recording mixer -- who is responsible for the creation of the final soundtrack of a movie -- Knudson amassed an impressive list of nearly 90 credits beginning in the early ‘70s, including “A Star Is Born” (1976), “Shampoo,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Coming Home,” “Ghost,” “Scarface,” “Trading Places,” “Witness,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “The Color Purple,” “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Empire of the Sun.”

In addition to his three Oscar wins, Knudson received seven other Oscar nominations.

“Buzz was the leading sound mixer in the business for more than 15 years,” said Chris Jenkins, senior vice president of sound services at Universal Studios.

“He was the common thread between such diverse filmmakers as Barbra Streisand, Hal Ashby, Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin and John Landis. So he did comedies, dramas, action films,” Jenkins said. “A lot of guys are pigeonholed, but Buzz did it all.”

Landis, who worked with Knudson on numerous films, beginning with “The Blues Brothers” in 1980, called Knudson “a great artist.”

“He was so good at what he did; he was like a gunslinger,” said Landis. “The thing about Buzz, he was one of those guys that directors really sought out because they knew he would elevate the film; he was a real collaborator.”

After mentioning some of Knudson’s most-acclaimed credits, Landis said “those are all important sound movies, especially ‘The Exorcist.’ But every movie Buzz did sounded good.”

Spielberg, in a statement to The Times, said Knudson was “the father of the great sound mixers working today.”

“He taught me about sound design and balance and why it’s so important to hear the dialogue above all else,” Spielberg said. “He’d never let on whether he liked the picture he was working on until the very end, when we would put the picture up, fully mixed, and play it back for ourselves.

“When Buzz would say, ‘That’s a good picture,’ you knew you had something that you could be proud of.”

Jenkins, who worked with Knudson at Todd-AO for 25 years, explained that a re-recording mixer sits at the console with the film’s director and “puts together hundreds of sound effects and dialogue tracks and the score for the movie and is responsible for deciding which sounds will predominate in a particular scene.”

One of Knudson’s greatest skills as a sound mixer, Jenkins said, was working with people.

“It’s a real people-oriented business,” he said. “You spend 12 to 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week sometimes, in the studio, so it’s being able to handle really big-time personalities.”

That included Streisand, with whom Knudson worked on “A Star Is Born,” “The Main Event” and “Nuts.”

“She loved Buzz,” Jenkins said. “He would hear things in the same manner that she did as a singer, for instance. He innately knew what her vocals and dialogue tracks should sound like, and how to technically convert that to the sound of her movie. It sounds simple, but it’s very complicated to do.

“So it’s a combination of statesmanship, technical prowess and that kind of abstract quality of having a good ear.”

Jenkins likened mixing sound to painting. “You get the right colors and the right subject matter and you have to execute it,” he said. “Buzz’s gift was the execution -- the execution of ‘The Exorcist,’ ‘A Star Is Born’ or ‘E.T,’ as well as really finely nuanced movies like ‘Bound for Glory,’ the Woody Guthrie story by Hal Ashby, which was one of his favorites.”

That 1976 film, Jenkins said, is “probably the closest in personality” to Knudson.

“He was a very simple man but had this deep, deep gift that was enigmatic,” Jenkins said.

A Los Angeles native, Knudson graduated from Fairfax High School in 1944 and served in the Army Air Forces during World War II. He later recalled that after the war, his father, who worked in a Hollywood studio, told him, “Give me 400 bucks; I’ll get you in the sound union.”

Knudson received his union card, but instead of going to work in Hollywood, he pitched in the minor leagues through 1952.

“Then I got married and figured I’d better get a legitimate job,” he recalled in a 2000 interview with the Motion Picture Editors Guild Magazine.

With the skyrocketing popularity of television, he soon landed a low-level job at the RCA sound studio in Hollywood. He worked at RCA until he moved to Todd-AO in 1960. He became a sound mixer a few years later on TV shows such as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” “Petticoat Junction” and “The Addams Family.”

In addition to his wife of 55 years, Knudson is survived by his daughters, Karen Sullivan of Irmo, S.C, and Nancy Montgomery of Burbank; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.