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John Florea; WWII Photographer Who Became TV Director

September 01, 2000|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Florea, Life magazine photographer who chronicled the greatest battles of World War II and the greatest stars of Hollywood, then segued into a career as a television director, has died at the age of 84.

Florea, who photographed the significant moments of both V-E Day and V-J Day, died Aug. 25 at Summerlin Hospital in Las Vegas.

Working in Hollywood as a staff photographer for Life, Florea was in his darkroom developing pictures of actress Jane Russell on Dec. 7, 1941. When he heard the news that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, the photographer immediately refocused his career.

Florea and his cameras were soon in San Diego County's military camps, creating a Life photo essay, "A Day in the Life of the Marine Corps Raiders." He trained with the men he photographed and so impressed the unit's leader, Col. Jimmy Roosevelt, that he was offered a commission as a field lieutenant. The man behind the camera said he'd prefer press credentials.

Roosevelt called his father, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Florea was soon on his way to the Pacific as one of America's first war correspondents.

He covered the Navy and the Marines in the battles of Tarawa and Rabaul, and later the war in Europe, including the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen death camp in Germany.

"I busted a lot of lenses," he said in 1995. "It's hard to run with cameras, and you have to hit the deck when the bombs whistle by."

He was at the Elbe River when Allied forces met there to complete the victory in Europe, and he was in Paris during the celebration. He was also on board the U.S. battleship Missouri for the Japanese surrender ending the war.

"They were all heroes," he said in 1995 of the fighting men he covered. "They had to carry a gun, and they had to shoot it. I could go up and shoot pictures of them, but I could turn around any time I wanted. They had to stay there."

At war's end, Florea returned to Hollywood. He was on the staff of the San Francisco Examiner, but he spent most of his journalistic career working for Life. He was also photo editor of Collier's magazine.

His images of screen legends became legends. A 1988 exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, "Masters of Starlight: Photographers in Hollywood," included a florid Florea shot from the 1950s illustrating the power of Technicolor. The photo whimsically depicted actress Doris Day walking six poodles that appeared to have fallen into vats of Easter egg dye.

Given his familiarity with the entertainment business, Florea moved easily into work for Ivan Tors Productions as a producer, director and writer. He amassed myriad credits, particularly for television directing from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s.

Among the series for which he directed episodes were "Daniel Boone," "Mission: Impossible," "Gentle Ben," "The Runaways," "CHiPs," "The Dukes of Hazzard," "Walking Tall," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," "Hell Town" and "MacGyver."

Florea also directed a number of movies for television, among them "Pickup on 101," "Invisible Strangler," "Where's Willie?" and "Hot Child in the City."

Born in Alliance, Ohio, Florea first picked up a camera as a teenager and immediately found his calling. He moved to California as a young man, seeking plentiful photo subjects, and spent more than 60 years in Los Angeles.

He is survived by his wife, Ruth Johnson Florea, of Studio City; two daughters, Gwen Florea and Melanie Florea Martinez, both of Las Vegas; two grandchildren and two great-granddaughters.

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