Laszlo Kovacs, the Hungarian-born cinematographer who found international fame after treating the American landscape as a character in the landmark 1969 movie “Easy Rider,” has died. He was 74.
Kovacs, a former Budapest film student who arrived in the United States as a political refugee in 1957, died in his sleep Sunday at his Beverly Hills home, said his wife, Audrey.
His work on “Paper Moon” was considered a masterpiece of black-and-white photography.
He also put his stamp on such notable movies as “Five Easy Pieces” and “Shampoo.”
“I think he’s one of the great cameramen of the New Hollywood era,” said director Peter Bogdanovich, who worked with Kovacs on six films, including “Targets” (Bogdanovich’s first feature film), “What’s Up, Doc?,” “Paper Moon,” “At Long Last Love,” “Nickelodeon” and “Mask.”
“I worked with him more than any other photographer, which speaks for itself,” Bogdanovich told The Times on Monday. “He was just reliable. He could make things look gritty as we did on ‘Paper Moon’ or very glamorous like we did with [Barbra] Streisand in ‘Doc.’ ” He could fall into any style.”
Most recently, Kovacs shot “Torn From the Flag,” a feature documentary about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The film incorporates some of the footage that he and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, a Budapest film school graduate, photographed before fleeing the country and arriving in the United States.
“Laszlo Kovacs was in the vanguard of American cinematography in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and he helped change the look of American cinema,” said James Chressanthis, a fellow member of the American Society of Cinematographers, who is making a documentary about Kovacs and Zsigmond called “Laszlo & Vilmos.”
“Before that era, there was great cinematography but many, if not most, American films were studio-bound, and Laszlo’s success was in taking movies out of the studio and on the road and into real situations. His ability to do that, along with others, changed cinema forever.”
Chressanthis, who interviewed Kovacs on camera as recently as two weeks ago for his documentary, said the cinematographer was known for his “inventiveness, the ability to improvise on location, his portraiture of actors in terms of lighting and his compositional ability.”
“He filmed many, many beautiful films, but my personal favorite is ‘Paper Moon,’ which is an absolute masterpiece of black-and-white cinematography.”
Kovacs had been in America for a decade and had shot a number of low-budget biker movies such as “Hells Angels on Wheels” and “The Savage Seven” when Dennis Hopper asked him to shoot his film “Easy Rider,” a portrait of America that starred Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson.
“I didn’t want to do it,” Kovacs told the Albuquerque Journal in 2006. “We did so many motorcycle movies; they’re all the same: They come into town, they destroy the town, and at sunset they ride away.”
But this time, with Hopper, things looked different.
As Hopper acted out the story of two motorcyclists searching for America, Kovacs said: “I was fascinated by the aspect of two young men and I had a chance to put in this third person -- this landscape, this character. When he finished, we were all very quiet. I finally said, ‘When do we start?’ ”
In a statement to The Times on Monday, Hopper said Kovacs “was the greatest telephoto operator that I have ever seen and I could never have made ‘Easy Rider’ without him.”
Director Bob Rafelson, who used Kovacs as cinematographer on “Five Easy Pieces” and “The King of Marvin Gardens,” said one of the things that he liked about him was that “he was willing and happy to change the rules of filmmaking that were the convention at the studios.”
“What made him a brilliant artist most for me was he could film air like nobody I had ever seen,” Rafelson said. “There’s something palpable about the air that somehow or other he could make visible on film: You could sense the density of the air, the small particles of color in the air, that were invisible to the eye. And therefore you had a feeling of environment and atmosphere like in very few films I have ever seen before or since.”
In a career that spanned five decades and more than 70 feature films, Kovacs’ credits also include “New York, New York,” “The Last Waltz,” “Frances,” “Ghostbusters,” “Multiplicity,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “Miss Congeniality.”
In 2002, Kovacs received the American Society of Cinematographers’ Lifetime Achievement Award.
Born May 14, 1933, on a farm near a village about 60 miles from Budapest, Kovacs was an early movie fan -- he watched films on the weekend in a makeshift cinema in the school auditorium.
“The whole room was dark except for this white frame,” he told the Albuquerque Journal in 2006. “And through this window, I could see the world.”
In 1952, he was accepted into the Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest. He was in his final year in 1956 when a revolt against the communist regime broke out. He and Zsigmond documented the historic event with a borrowed 35-millimeter camera and film from the school, hiding the camera in a shopping bag with a hole for the lens.
“We saw the Russian tanks driving back and forth and shooting indiscriminately,” he said in the 2006 interview. “People were jumping into doorways. We just looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s go.’ Wherever we heard gunfire, that’s where we went.”
Armed with about 30,000 feet of film hidden in potato sacks, Kovacs and Zsigmond fled across the Austria-Hungary border, which was patrolled by armed Russian solders. They arrived in the United States as political refugees in early 1957.
Kovacs is survived by Audrey, his wife of 23 years; his daughters Julianna and Nadia; and a granddaughter.
Services are pending.