John A. Alonzo, ASC, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer of Chinatown, died March 13 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 66. Alonzo's heyday as a DP was the 1970s, when in addition to Chinatown, he photographed such well remembered films as Vanishing Point, Harold and Maude, Lady Sings the Blues, Sounder, Black Sunday, and Norma Rae.
Born in 1934 in Dallas, TX, Alonzo started as a camera operator, director, and sometime puppeteer in local television. He then enjoyed a career as a bit actor (usually playing a Mexican villain) in TV series like Perry Mason, Cheyenne, and The Wild, Wild West, and in the feature film The Magnificent Seven. On that movie, he met veteran cinematographer Charles Lang, Jr., ASC, who became the first of several mentors to Alonzo; others included Floyd Crosby, ASC, and Winton Hoch, ASC.
The budding director of photography shot several 16mm films during the 60s, and got B camera jobs on David Wolper and National Geographic documentaries. His first big feature was Roger Corman's 1970 Bloody Mama, which led to the visual achievement that cemented his reputation, Vanishing Point. After bringing a beautiful visual texture to Martin Ritt's Sounder, a 1930s-set tale of southern black sharecroppers, Alonzo went on to shoot six more films for the director. The DP's neo-noir look for Chinatown earned him his only Oscar nomination, in 1974.
In the 1980s, Alonzo's most notable credits were Brian De Palma's gangster extravaganza Scarface and the female ensemble comedy Steel Magnolias. In the 90s, the DP moved more into television, earning Emmy recognition for his work on World War II: When Lions Roared, Lansky, and last year's live broadcast of Fail Safe. He was one of the first major cinematographers to embrace the possibilities of digital and high-definition technology. In 1993, Alonzo brought his enthusiasm for the new formats to LDI in Orlando, where he participated in two sessions — “Cinematographer on Cinematography: John Alonzo, ASC,” and “The High-Definition Revolution.”
“Having John Alonzo as a featured speaker at LDI was one of the most inspirational technology-oriented sessions we've ever had,” remembers LDI conference director Ellen Lampert-Gréaux. “Not only did he share his personal motivations for his films, he was on the cutting edge of high-definition TV. He demonstrated how you could go back to a shot with Sony digital technology and add effects, showing how it could be not only a new broadcast standard, but a tool for cinematographers.”