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Richard Greenberg, who evoked distinctive moods for Hollywood movies, dead at 71

West Rogers Park native Richard Greenberg was Oscar-nominated for special effects on "Predator" and created striking title sequences for many movies. | Provided photo

In two minutes, Richard Greenberg could terrify, tease and intrigue you.

Using typography, graphic design and special effects, he became one of the most revered designers of film titles since Saul Bass, who created the opening sequences for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and “Vertigo.”

A graduate of Chicago’s Sullivan High School and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Mr. Greenberg, who was living in New York, died Saturday at Lenox Hill Hospital after his appendix burst, according to his former wife Paula Silver. He was 71.

West Rogers Park native Richard Greenberg was nominated for an Oscar for special effects on “Predator” and created striking title sequences for Hollywood movies. | Provided photo
West Rogers Park native Richard Greenberg was nominated for an Oscar for special effects on “Predator” and created striking title sequences for Hollywood movies. | Provided photo

His work evoked distinctive moods for horror films like “Alien” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula,’’ action-comedies like “The Goonies” and “Lethal Weapon” and romances like “Dirty Dancing.”

“Alien” director Ridley Scott called Mr. Greenberg “a great guy and an innovative designer. My experience with him . . . was one of my better experiences in this business. We’ve lost a good one.”

The makers of “Stranger Things,” who created retro, luminescent red titles for the TV series, were among those shaped by Mr. Greenberg.

Michelle Dougherty, who directed the opening of “Stranger Things,” called his work “a major influence on me and many designers.”

“Stranger Things” titles. | Imaginary Forces
“Stranger Things” titles. | Imaginary Forces

“My dad really changed the way people thought of titles,” Mr. Greenberg’s son Luke said.

With “Alien,” Mr. Greenberg found a way to spawn dread even before the movie began, breaking the letters into pieces. For the trailer, to mimic the look of a forsaken planet, he filmed a tray of brownies, baked without shortening to create a cracked surface.

“Even now, I’ll go to a meeting for a new show or film, and, sure enough, the slow build of the ‘Alien’ title will be referenced, held up as an example of how strong, how iconic, how memorable the synthesis of type and image can be,” said Karin Fong, co-founder of Imaginary Forces, the agency responsible for the “Stranger Things” titles.

For the opening for “Dirty Dancing,” Mr. Greenberg used dreamy, black-and-white, slow-motion footage of the dancers as “Be My Baby” rang out, hinting at Baby’s coming of age when she opens a door and is exposed to raucous “Dirty Dancing.”

“He was really a genius,” said “Dirty Dancing” writer and co-producer Eleanor Bergstein. “I would sit in the back of theaters and just watch audiences lean in, and I would say, ‘Thank you, Richard.’ ”

In 1978, he designed the titles for his first major movie, “Superman,” for which he made the letters seem to fly.

“He came up with this brilliant idea, gliding through the clouds,” “Superman” director Richard Donner said. “In those days, there was no computer. Whatever he did would literally take 24 hours of concentration on that one thing. If one thing went wrong in those 24 hours, you had to go back to the beginning. . . . He was this magical character, a bizarre, wonderful individual.”

They came to be close friends. Donner is godfather to Mr. Greenberg’s daughter Jessica.

Richard Greenberg was a titles designer and special effects wizard on many Hollywood films. | RG/A
Richard Greenberg was a titles designer and special effects wizard on many Hollywood films. | RG/A

Other movies that he designed titles for included “Altered States,” “The Dead Zone,” “Lethal Weapon,” and “The World According to Garp.” For “All that Jazz,” he helped create a title sequence with light bulbs to mimic a Broadway marquee.

In “Predator,” for which he snagged an Oscar nomination for special effects, Mr. Greenberg was involved in developing the mandibled monster’s cloak of invisibility. The audience could see the outline of the creature in the jungle and also could see through it.

“It created a lot of fear,” said his brother and partner Robert Greenberg, who worked with him at what would become R/GA. They founded the global agency, taking the name from their initials, in their New York brownstone in 1977.

Mr. Greenberg worked on special effects for “Goodfellas,” softening some of the more violent scenes. He used CGI to make 40 men look like 400 in “Braveheart,” his brother said. He also worked on trailers for “Tootsie,” “Gandhi” and “The Big Chill,” Silver said.

For “Silence of the Lambs,” his brother said, “We shot the night-vision goggles” scene.

He also helped film Michelle Pfeiffer’s transition into a bird in Donner’s “Ladyhawke.”

“If I had a computer,” Donner said, “It probably still wouldn’t have been as good, thanks to the old mechanics.”

Donner called him the most influential designer of titles since Bass and said, “He did ethereal, untouchable visuals.”

Bass was a fan, too. He once said of Mr. Greenberg: “He’s the only guy around whose work I wish I had done.”

Mr. Greenberg also directed the Fred Savage-Howie Mandel movie “Little Monsters” in 1989.

Growing up in West Rogers Park, young Richard, who took classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, preferred making art to playing outside, according to his sister Carol Felsenthal. One Hanukkah, “I remember him building this giant, beautiful dreidel out of cardboard,” she said. They ran a children’s day camp together at Indian Boundary Park, where he organized the arts and crafts.

Young siblings (L-R) Richard Greenberg, Carol Felsenthal and Robert Greenberg. | Facebook
Young siblings (L-R) Richard Greenberg, Carol Felsenthal and Robert Greenberg. | Facebook

Mr. Greenberg earned an undergraduate degree in industrial design and a master’s degree in graphic design at the University of Illinois.

His innovation was inspired by the creative risk-taking of Hollywood in the 1970s “grafted onto commercial blockbusters and studio movies,” said Marc Shmuger, former head of Universal Pictures. “The ‘Superman’ title, the ‘Alien’ title, the floating baby in ‘Garp’ — these are iconic sequences.”

“He loved the way that type appeared on the screen and how words could take on their own cinematic value,” said his daughter Jessica. “I always thought he thought about letters as if they were structures.”

For all of his technical skill, though, he still couldn’t seem to figure out how to use his cellphone or Kindle reader.

“He would talk into his cellphone as if he were trying to surmount the distance between him and the other person,” his daughter said. “He would talk very loudly.”

And driving — he’d turn his head away from the road or gesture, taking both hands off the wheel. “The idea of Dick driving filled everyone with dread and terror,” his sister said.

Mr. Greenberg struggled with depression. “I felt like it wasn’t a deficiency but helped him see beauty in the world,” said his son Morgan.

He enjoyed the writing of Faulkner, the music of Mahler and Philip Glass, the design of Frank Lloyd Wright, a good steak and Swedish Fish candy, as well as his three pugs, Oliver, Abigail and Nellie.

When shooting a movie, he’d channel stress by chewing on black photographic tape, his brother said.

He had a huge collection of birdcages, some shaped like cathedrals. But he didn’t coop up his pet birds, at one point having 25 or so flying around his house, according to his daughter.

His sister said a celebration of his life is planned in New York this fall.

He never stopped being excited about movies. His latest favorite, his daughter said, was “On Chesil Beach.”

Richard Greenberg. | Facebook
Richard Greenberg. | Facebook