Robert G. Zuckerman shows celebrity portraits shot on movie sets to raise awareness of adult polyglucosan body disease
By Michael Aushenker
Al Pacino on the set of “Any Given Sunday,” Will Smith on the set of “Bad Boys 2,” a hard-earned portrait of Faye Dunaway during the 1993 filming of “The Temp”— as a photographer for movie and television shoots, Robert Zuckerman began shooting the stars in the early 1990s.
His extensive unit and special photography credits also include a batch of Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer films — the first three “Transformers,” the “National Treasure” movies and “Pain and Gain” among them — as well as TV shows “Justified,” “Rescue Me” and “American Horror Story.” He’s also shot for magazines such as Vanity Fair, Time and Entertainment Weekly, and album covers for Bonnie Raitt and Megadeth.
“Portraits,” an exhibit showing some of Zuckerman’s favorite images over the years, opens on Sunday at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica.
Hosted by Michelle Danner and Alexandra Guarnieri, “Portraits” is dedicated to raising awareness of adult polyglucosan body disease, a crippling and untreatable genetic disease that has afflicted Zuckerman and taken him out of the Hollywood scene.
A graduate of UC Berkeley, Zuckerman studied cinematography at American Film Institute in 1979 and broke into the film industry in 1981 as an assistant to director John Avildsen on “Neighbors.” Zuckerman recalls Rodney Dangerfield auditioning for the John Belushi role, but it was during a break in shooting that Zuckerman photographed Dan Aykroyd in New York.
Some of Zuckerman’s work — black-and-white shots of Morgan Freeman, for example, or The Rock during “Pain & Gain” — feature a warm halo of light illuminating their features. Zuckerman achieved this effect with a combination of a Styrofoam cooler, portable light fixture and autofocus.
On the set of “The Temp,” Zuckerman recalled Dunaway as controlling, self-conscious and not very cooperative regarding the atmospheric shot that ultimately ended up in “Portraits.” However, during a random encounter years later, she could not have been nicer, he said. Dunaway wound up coming to his apartment to buy a camera for her son and they talked for hours. When he reminded her of their tense “Temp” session, he says she responded, “‘I know, I’m a real pain in the ass on the set.’”
Conversely, during 1991’s “The Linguini Incident,” Zuckerman wanted to shoot star David Bowie at Coney Island and found that to be much easier than expected.
“They said, ‘Don’t bother him, don’t bother him,’” Zuckerman recalled. As it turned out, “he was so personable. He was such a total pro.”
When Zuckerman snapped Marcello Mastroianni at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons in 1992, he asked the Italian actor which of his films was his favorite. He remembers Mastroianni responding, “‘8 ½.’ I still don’t know what it means but it’s my favorite film!”
Zuckerman waxes philosophical regarding the topic of difficult celebrities.
“I’ve viewed myself more of a receiver. I create a space where people can be themselves,” he said.
Zuckerman was also on the Wilmington, North Carolina, set of “The Crow,” a gig he swung only after friend (and Santa Monica-based writer) David Mamet pressed producers.
“They felt they needed a much more experienced photographer,” recalled Zuckerman, who negotiated a three-week trial run. He felt vindicated when the guy who resisted his hiring eventually said, “‘Man, you did an amazing job, I’m really proud of you.’
“That meant a lot to me,” Zuckerman said.
Tragically, star Brandon Lee was accidentally killed by a prop gun in March 1993.
“He’s supposed to fall,” Zuckerman recalled. “I photographed the rehearsal and saw how he fell. [During filming] I panned with the bad guy and he fell in a different way.”
Lee’s abdominal wound prompted a 911 call.
“I went to the studio, made sure the gate was up to let the paramedics in,” Zuckerman recalled. “They cleared everyone off the stage, gave him an emergency tracheotomy and took him to the hospital,” where the entire crew was finally turned away at 6:30 a.m. Hours later, Zuckerman heard over the radio that Lee, 28, had died.
“Portraits” includes 20 pieces that, in 2012 and 2013, hung at LT Bar & Grill in Manhattan. Prior to “Portraits,” Zuckerman had mounted a half-dozen shows at the Edgemar since 2005. These included his “Kindsight” series, celebrating “the riches of everyday life random encounters” as positive forward motion in the wake of the horrors of the 9-11 attacks. “Kindsight” images currently hang in Cedars-Sinai’s permanent collection.
Due to his condition and other family issues, Zuckerman retired from set photography and relocated to Miami about two years ago.
“It was disheartening because I really gave 200% to people,” he said.
However, he’s keeping busy teaching at Florida National University and is proud of his career.
“I really love taking photos that help the project overall,” Zuckerman said. “When you have good intentions, it somehow comes through with the results.”
“Portraits” opens from 2 to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday and runs through March 31 at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica. Call (310) 392-7327 or visit edgemar.org.