Photographer Has Tales to Tell

MELVILLE, N.Y. " Andrew Laszlo snapped his first pictures at age 11 in his hometown of Papa, Hungary. He was the cinematographer for his last big-time American motion picture, the musical "Newsies," in 1992. Now he's moved on to teaching film students and writing books.

In the 70 years between those first photos and today, Laszlo's life has been jam-packed with events both tragic and triumphant. As a teenager, he lost his family during the Holocaust and was sent to two concentration camps, Bergen-Belsen in Germany and Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia.

At age 21, he came to the United States, was drafted during the Korean War and ended up " thanks to his background in photography and film, which he'd briefly pursued in Budapest " in the U.S. Army Signal Corps' motion-picture school.

"It was fantastic," Laszlo says.

It took him a few years after his Army education to establish himself, he says, but in the '50s he started his first mainstream project, a four-year stint as camera operator on CBS's "The Phil Silvers Show." His next gig was director of photography, the top job, for "Naked City." After that, he moved to "Brenner," "The Nurses," "Mama" and a string of other TV shows.

In 1959, he was "kidnapped by Ed Sullivan," who told him they were going to the Dominican Republic, he says, but instead flew with him to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro. When a light exploded because of iffy electricity, he says, "I thought I was going to be shot by all these bearded revolutionaries."

Before he ended his run with the Silvers show, Laszlo moved from Manhattan to Long Island with his wife, Ann, and their infant son, first of their four children.

His hair has turned silver, his blue eyes are framed by large glasses and he's now a grandfather of five, but Laszlo continues his adventurous and creative ways.

It started back in Papa, when his older brother passed on a birthday gift to him. "I was absolutely, totally enamored by the camera and what it did, to capture an image," Laszlo says. He built his own darkroom and got jobs taking pictures.

"That love never went away. It turned out to be my entire life. If I could start again and do it all over, I would probably do the same thing," he says. After World War II, he returned to Hungary and took photos of Russian soldiers for them to send home, "to sustain myself." He learned a little Russian then; he says he has always been good at languages.

His love of writing, he says, started in Hungary, too. A junior-high teacher, "a wonderful, wonderful mentor" who was later killed in the war, urged him to submit a piece to a student contest. "And, by gosh, the thing won first place," Laszlo says.

He's written for many industry publications, he says. Then he wrote "Footnote to History," a memoir of his early life, published in 2002. He's also written two books on film and three novels and has just finished writing another novel. It's set in the 1800s in Japan, where he spent nine months as director of photography for the miniseries "Shogun," for which he received an Emmy nomination in 1980.

He returned to Japan when he gave a worldwide series of lectures on filmmaking for the Eastman Kodak Co., which last year gave him its prestigious Gold Medal award. "And it's really gold. I couldn't believe it," he says. The Kodak lectures became the basis for "Every Frame a Rembrandt."

In it, he says, he tells "war stories" about making five films, including 1982's "First Blood," the first Rambo picture, and "Streets of Fire," a 1984 film billed as "A Rock & Roll Fable."

In "A Fight of No Consequence," he writes about scenes in the jungles of Venezuela where a band of ex-Nazis live. The story's inspiration came, he says, while filming an ABC documentary in the 1960s for "High Adventure with Lowell Thomas." He traveled to those jungles to get to Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall.

There, he met "a bunch of people I suspected were Nazis hiding in the jungle," an incident he recounts in his other movie book, "It's a Wrap."

One was a diamond prospector "who passed himself off as a Lithuanian, but he was really a German." Another lived an idle life "with his Austrian baroness wife" and became the basis for the character Alex in Laszlo's novel.

In real life, Laszlo says, he tried to avoid the Germans in the jungle. "I didn't much care for them, putting it very mildly."

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