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TV Pioneer Recalls Life Framed in a Camera Lens

February 19, 1987|DAVID WHARTON | Wharton is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Michael Freedman lay in wait, beneath the surface of the water, peering through a television camera.

The scene was the 1964 AAU Championships outside of San Francisco. Freedman, an ABC cameraman, was using an experimental underwater camera to get a submerged view of swimmers making the turn during a race.

As the swimmers drew closer, Freedman realized that the casing on his equipment was leaking. Water steadily filled the inside of the camera. Freedman knew that when the water reached a certain level, he and everyone else in the pool would be electrocuted.

But he wanted the shot.

"I held steady, they made the turn and I got out of that pool," Freedman recalls. "And I said a prayer of thanks."

Exciting enough. But what about the time when Freedman, shooting aerial footage off the coast of Honolulu, went down in a helicopter crash and was rescued by surfers?

Or the time when he stood his ground, camera running, as Ohio State University football coach Woody Hayes charged down the sidelines and punched him on national television?

"I hope all of this doesn't sound as though I seek out risks," Freedman says. "But it's not a dull job."

During the last 40 years, Freedman has consistently gotten himself into hot water by taking television audiences to places they've never been before. The Bell Canyon man was one of the first to use a miniaturized, hand-held camera in the early 1960s and since then has taken it everywhere he can think of.

Such bravado has earned Freedman nine Emmy Awards and a reputation as a pioneer in the field.

"He paints pictures like Michelangelo. He takes chances and he's got an incredible ability to capture what's going on," says ABC director Andy Sidaris, who has worked with Freedman since 1960. "He was one of the first guys, and he's the greatest cameraman I've ever known."

Freedman demurs, "They don't pay me to shoot the backs of people's heads. I always got the assignments that were oddball because they knew I would give it a shot."

These days, Freedman, 63, has traded his camera for a job as lighting director on "Facts of Life," an NBC sitcom filmed at ABC's studios. He is devoted to the work and proudly describes some new color gels--shaded filters to fit over spotlights--he has selected to light an upcoming episode.

Yet he speaks wistfully of camera work. Whenever he sees a rolling landscape, a beautiful sunset, an interesting person, Freedman wants to put a frame around that scene. It is through the simply defined parameters of a camera lens that he prefers to view life.

"Watching a good cameraman at work is like watching light change on a face," he says. "It's like listening to music. It's a sensuous pleasure."

The images he recalls from a career, people mostly, remain vivid.

"The camera is like an X-ray machine. You can tell what makes a person tick," he says. "There's a certain intensity and tenacity about Reggie Jackson. Muhammad Ali was a gentle, kind man. He had a lot of warmth."

Nine Olympic Games and 10 Republican and Democratic conventions have passed before Freedman's camera lens. Scenes from the past linger: the outrageous joy of convention-floor celebrations, the snowy grandeur of the biathlon in the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France, the heraldry of the Queen's Cup Rugby Final in London. He speaks with embarrassed awe of seeing the Statue of Liberty through his camera last summer.

"Michael is always searching for the human factor," says Keith Jackson, an ABC sports announcer. "It's part of his soul."

The trademark is the shaved head. People recognize it everywhere.

"He looks like Khrushchev," Sidaris says.

Study a photograph of the sidelines at any major sporting event or convention over the last 20 years and you are likely to see that head, with a camera tucked on the shoulder.

No longer burdened with such duty, Freedman remains tan and fit. He is a short, sturdy man: 5 feet, 9 inches, 160 pounds.

"I see myself without any wrinkles. I'm solid," Freedman boasts, pulling up a sleeve and flexing a muscle. "My body is unbelievable."

The new job allows him to spend time with his wife, Alicia, in an expansive, hilltop home at the west end of the Valley. It was not that long ago when he would travel to a new country, sometimes a new continent, every week.

The den in his home displays memories in the form of photographs and mementos, among them, half a dozen Emmy Awards inauspiciously placed in out-of-the-way spots, or used as bookends.

"I'll tell you something that people don't realize," he says, pulling an Emmy down from a high shelf. "These things rust. Look here."

Trained in the Army

Trained to film newsreel footage for the Army, Freedman began working as a cameraman on "Pulitzer Prize Playhouse" in New York City in 1948. Alicia was a dancer and actress, so they eventually moved to Hollywood in 1954. Freedman worked on the "Lawrence Welk Show."

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