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Cinematographer William Fraker – A Legend Goes to Heaven

By Bob Fisher A large crowd packed the American Society of Cinematographers clubhouse, in Hollywood, on Saturday, July 10, to say goodbye to a legend who will live in their hearts forever.

William A. Fraker, ASC, aka Billy, died on May 31 at age 86. The crowd at the memorial included cinematographers, crew members, directors, actors, producers, family and friends. His story is like the script for a feel-good Hollywood movie. Billy’s grandmother was a teacher in Mexico when a brutal revolution brought Pancho Villa to power in 1910. Teachers were on his enemies list. She and Billy’s future mother and aunt rode mules across the border and entered the United States as illegal immigrants.

His grandmother earned a living as a portrait photographer at a downtown Los Angeles studio. Billy was 10 years old when his mother died. After his father died a year later, his grandmother opened a portrait studio in the Hollywood cottage where she and Billy lived. On his 18th birthday, Billy enlisted in the Navy and served as a signalman on a transport that carried Marines to islands they invaded during World War II. After the war, his aunt “hounded him” into going to film school at USC where he focused on cinematography.

After graduation, Billy earned a meager living shooting 16 mm industrial films and pickup shots for movies for $25 apiece for seven years until he broke into the Hollywood mainstream. He worked his way up through the camera crew system and went on to earn some 50 cinematography credits and Oscar nominations for Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1978), Heaven Can Wait (1979) 1941 (1980), War Games (1984) and Murphy’s Romance (1986). Billy also earned an Oscar nomination for visual effects in 1941. That’s just a short list of his memorable films.

Billy also directed occasional films and mentored students at USC and other schools. I wrote many articles about Billy and his films, but more than that, he was a friend and guiding light. One year, I moderated a discussion with Billy at a festival after a screening of his classic film, Rosemary’s Baby. A student asked Billy how he knew what he was getting on film since there was no video assist in those days. He pointed to his eyes, put his hand on his heart and said, “Learn to trust your eyes and do what your heart tells you is right.”

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