Chicago laced through the life of renowned cinematographer Haskell Wexler

SHARE Chicago laced through the life of renowned cinematographer Haskell Wexler
SHARE Chicago laced through the life of renowned cinematographer Haskell Wexler

Haskell Wexler was once a kid who co-captained the football team at Francis Parker School and helped produce a student paper called the “Anti-Everything.”

Chicago’s industry, labor movement and 1960s protests molded Mr. Wexler, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer responsible for some of the most stirring and beautiful images ever captured on film. Even a local Sears played a role in his development. When the technology of lenses had yet to catch up with his vision, he visited “Ladies’ Lingerie” at Sears, searching for stockings he could drape over cameras to diffuse light, said his oldest son, movie soundman Jeff Wexler.

Young Haskell grew up at 2340 Lincoln Park West. His father, Simon “Sy” Wexler, started Allied Radio, an early catalog electronics company and a progenitor of Radio Shack. The Wexlers had a 16mm Bell & Howell movie camera. “Pop picked it up and started shooting stuff, even as a kid,” Jeff Wexler said. He worked as an assistant to photographer Mickey Pallas, who chronicled unions and civil rights groups.

Haskell Wexler, who died on Dec. 27 at 93, was a brother of Chicago real estate mogul Jerry Wexler, which made him a step-uncle to actors Daryl and Page Hannah. He was a cousin of Mike Bloomfield, a North Shore native whose wailing licks landed him a spot on Rolling Stone’s list of Top 100 Guitarists. He was friends with Studs Terkel. His best friend from Francis Parker, the late Barney Rosset, flouted censors to publish “Tropic of Cancer” and “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.” They vied for the same girlfriend, Nancy Ashenhurst.

“Barney lost out and ‘Pop’ married my mother,” said Jeff Wexler, who confirmed their youthful adventures on the Parker football team and newspaper.

“Pop met Bill Friedkin when Bill Friedkin worked as an usher at a Chicago moviehouse,” Jeff Wexler said. Friedkin went on to direct “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.”

Cinematographer Haskell Wexler directs actor Robert Forster in his 1969 cinema verite film “Medium Cool,” shot amid the protests of the 1968 Democratic convention. | Photo provided by family

Cinematographer Haskell Wexler directs actor Robert Forster in his 1969 cinema verite film “Medium Cool,” shot amid the protests of the 1968 Democratic convention. | Photo provided by family

Chicago’s 1968 Democratic convention and its unrest starred in one of Haskell Wexler’s first notable films, “Medium Cool,” when he plunked down real actors amid street protests. In addition to being the writer, director and cinematographer, Mr. Wexler co-produced the movie with others, including his brother, Jerry. Their cousin, the blues guitarist Bloomfield, did the music. Even with handheld cameras, his footage looked “so good that one would think the confrontation lines had been pre-lit for his camera,” said Glenn Erickson, writing for Turner Classic Movies.

In a 1969 interview with Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert, Mr. Wexler said he always wanted to make his first film in Chicago. “I am a Chicagoan,” he said, and “Chicago is a real place and L.A. is a motel.”

When “Medium Cool” opened, Ebert called it “the only feature film to really capture the life of Chicago’s neighborhoods.”

One of Mr. Wexler’s most beautiful movies, from 1978, was the Wyethian “Days of Heaven,” filled with swaying grass. But he also captured the tactile humidity of sweaty shirts and skin in a racist Mississippi town with 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night.”

Despite being colorblind — he “kept it a secret for the longest time,” he son said — in his career he gloriously straddled color and black-and-white cinema. He earned Oscars for 1976’s “Bound for Glory,” in color, and the black-and-white “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in 1966.

He contributed to one of film’s sexiest scenes with the erotic chess game in the 1968 version of “The Thomas Crown Affair.” He took on the issue of returning Vietnam veterans with “Coming Home.” He worked on “American Graffiti,” “The Conversation” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Cinematographer Haskell Wexler poses at the premiere of the documentary film “Revenge of the Electric Car” at Tesla Motors in Los Angeles on Oct. 21, 2011. | Chris Pizzello/AP file photo

Cinematographer Haskell Wexler poses at the premiere of the documentary film “Revenge of the Electric Car” at Tesla Motors in Los Angeles on Oct. 21, 2011. | Chris Pizzello/AP file photo

What is sometimes overlooked in biographies, his son said, is that he was a warm and patient father. “Growing up, it was just terrific for me to visit the set. Pop would take me to work,” said Jeff Wexler, who was nominated for Academy Awards for sound on “The Last Samurai” and “Independence Day.”

When Jeff was about 4, asking questions about batteries, “He always had the time to give me a full, complete answer. He’d let me help him change camera batteries. . . . If they hadn’t put the camera yet on the dolly, he’d let me ride on the dolly. I was in heaven.”

In Chicago, “I remember going with my father when I was like 6 years old and [we] went to Sears and went into the ladies lingerie department,” Jeff Wexler said. “The salespeople were looking like, ‘What is going on?’ He would take these stockings and put them up to his face” to examine how they might soften a shot: “ ‘If I put them on the lens, what is the look it’s going to give me?’ ”

Haswell Wexler studied briefly at the University of California in Berkeley before marrying Nancy. They lived at 341 N. Belden. When World War II began, Mr. Wexler joined the U.S. Merchant Marines. “Pop was, in fact, torpedoed and spent two weeks in a lifeboat and they had to swim through burning oil,” his son said. “That sort of sealed the deal as far as Pop’s anti-war stance.”

Jeff Wexler relocated to California at 11 to live with his father. It was common for him to meet his famous friends, including Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. He was especially thrilled when Steve McQueen, motorcycle-riding hero of “The Great Escape,” dropped by. “Steve McQueen would come to the house and pick me up in one of his new Ferraris” he said, heading for open road to rev the engines.

Mr. Wexler also is survived by his movie producer son, Mark; a daughter, Kathy, and his third wife, actress Rita Taggart.

He always loved the duality of the camera, Jeff Wexler said — how it gave him entry into other people’s worlds, but also kept him a separate observer.

The Latest
The boy was shot Wednesday night after he jumped from the car and began running in the 800 block of North Cicero Avenue in Austin, according to a preliminary statement from police.
Fischer Paper Products will be at National Restaurant Association show this weekend.
Peterson may never have been locked up had Stacy not gone missing in 2007. That set in motion a chain of events that led to Peterson’s 2012 conviction for the murder of his third wife, Kathleen Savio, whose death had initially been ruled an accident.
The signature piece from his Academy Award-winning score is one of the hardest-to-forget movie tunes worldwide — and has also served as the musical background to endless slow-motion parodies.
On May 18, 1978, a group of about 100 Chicago Latinos protested in the post office’s unfair hiring practices. Here’s how it turned out.