Of the thousands of treasures Huell Howser has revealed during a decade of KCET's "California's Gold" and "Visiting . . . With," one remains to be seen: The man behind the camera.
In Howser's search for the offbeat and overlooked, Luis Fuerte has filmed him perched atop the Golden Gate, feeling his way through abandoned Red Line tunnels and attempting to eat menudo (with the cameraman's mother). Shouldering a 26-pound Betacam--never a Steadycam--Fuerte moves over uneven ground, capturing Howser's roaming interviews in beautifully composed shots that seem to defy editing. One shot, moving backward through crowded downtown streets, went 16 minutes uncut.
Howser's gee-whiz enthusiasm, freed by Fuerte's nimble footwork, gives his shows a "You Are There" quality. One invites us along; the other takes us. "Louie, take a look at this," Howser calls. And we look, too. It's made "Louie" TV's most profoundly invisible celebrity since Carlton the doorman on "Rhoda." "If I'm walking with a man," Howser says, "it could be anyone, and people ask if it's Louie."
Meeting the soft-spoken Fuerte, one finds the kind of dark, bearded, matinee good looks that the camera adores. His love affair with the camera began in his hometown of San Bernardino when, fresh out of the Navy and pursuing engineering, he picked one up in his campus TV station. "It was the feel of the camera," he says, "the excitement of being in the studio." He met Howser at KCET when the former Tennessean arrived from KCBS-Channel 2 in the late '80s and invited him to shoot a new show about California. They've worked together since, developing a remarkable chemistry through hundreds of half-hours.
"I know his moves," Fuerte, 58, says. "By the tone of his voice, I can anticipate when he needs to break." The most famous segments are the dangerous ones, like window-washing downtown L.A.'s 73-story First Interstate building. "I don't like heights, but I'm really not thinking about it," he says. "I'm concentrating on making things work. Looking at lighting, checking sound, listening to Huell."
Fuerte has fallen only once, but he's always followed along. Now, however, he's taking the lead: producing, shooting and editing "Romantic America," a travel series for couples that is in development, and working on documentary projects. How long will the team keep spinning "Gold"? "I've said this year's it," Fuerte acknowledges. "Not only because of my schedule, but carrying that camera around has taken its toll."
Winner of six Emmys, a Golden Mike and an International Monitor Award, and an inductee into the Southern California Latino/Native American Hall of Fame, Fuerte is proudest of seeing his son and daughter graduate from college. Occasionally he sheds his anonymity at speaking engagements and student career days.
"I grew up in the barrio," he says, "and know it's important that these kids meet people who can show that they can do it, too. And, when another cameraman says, 'I've seen your work and I love what you do,' that's more rewarding than any trophy."