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Sid Avery, 83; Photographed Brando, Bogart, Taylor, Other Stars of 1950s, '60s

July 08, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He focused his lens on a grinning Marlon Brando enjoying toast and coffee at the breakfast table and later captured the brooding actor posing with his bongo drums in a corner of his living room.

He shot a glistening Rock Hudson, fresh from the shower with a towel wrapped around his waist, talking on the phone.

And he captured Elizabeth Taylor sitting in a folding chair on location in Texas for "Giant," eyes closed and face sensuously tilted upward as she caught some sun.

Sid Avery, a celebrity photographer in the 1950s and '60s, whose signature pictures depicting the "everyday" lives of Hollywood stars appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look and other national magazines, died of cancer July 1 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 83.

Last year, Avery came out of retirement to shoot the star-studded cast of the remake of "Ocean's Eleven." After all, he shot Frank Sinatra and Sinatra's Rat Pack pals during the making of the original film.

"He really was the iconic Hollywood photographer of the '50s and '60s," said David Barenholtz, owner of Apex Fine Art, the Los Angeles gallery that represents Avery's work.

"Most people may not know his name," Barenholtz said, "but everyone knows that picture of Rock Hudson in the towel and Marlon Brando with bongos between his legs."

Avery's images of Hollywood stars are 40 to 50 years old, Barenholtz said, but they have lost none of their allure.

"I think people love them even more today, because they captured an era that just doesn't exist anymore," he said.

Barenholtz said Avery's shots of celebrities "in more everyday kinds of scenes" served as a transition from the staged glamour portraits that appeared during Hollywood's Golden Age in the 1930s and '40s.

"The type of photographs that Sid took were much more intimate," he said. "They were more about the personality of the star. He went into their homes. He befriended them."

Avery's 1990 book, "Hollywood at Home: A Family Album 1950-1965," illustrated his approach to celebrity photo shoots, which did their part to create a Hollywood star mythology suitable for the family-friendly Eisenhower era.

"At the time we read no intimations of tragedy, or even the possibility of future disappointments, into any of these images," Time magazine movie critic Richard Schickel wrote in an essay for Avery's book. "Our tendency in those days was to regard such thoughts as unworthy of us. For, like these favored show folk, the rest of us ordinary citizens of the American 1950s were busy miming normalcy too."

"It was just a wonderful time," Avery told Biography magazine two years ago. "The relationship between photographer and stars wasn't adversarial, like it is today. You could develop friendships with some of the stars."

Avery considered Nat "King" Cole, Ernest Borgnine, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall his friends, but the open and friendly photographer didn't get along with all of his celebrity subjects.

Bing Crosby was "very difficult," he told Biography. "He could have hired you to be there, but he still wouldn't cooperate."

Even Bogart initially resisted inviting Avery into his home.

"He turned me down from every angle," Avery told the Chicago Tribune in 1991. "He said he'd just moved into a new house [and] his wife [Lauren Bacall] was pregnant. I finally told him that, if he gave me five or 10 minutes, he could get me out of his hair. I didn't tell him the name of the article was going to be 'The Star Who Hates Hollywood.' He said, 'OK, kid, come on over at 8 o'clock.' "

When Avery showed up that morning, the first thing Bogart did was offer him a drink. And instead of five or 10 minutes, the photo shoot lasted two hours, as Bogart quickly softened to the idea of having Avery and the camera invade his home.

The session produced a memorable shot of Bogart sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace, looking at a book with his young son. It was a scene of domestic bliss, complete with a seated Bacall gazing down at her husband and son and three large, sleeping boxers stretched out at her feet.

"The karma was right," Avery said.

Bogart enjoyed Avery's company so much that he not only invited the photographer to go sailing with him that afternoon, but he also asked Avery to join him for dinner at Romanoff's that evening.

Avery experienced a similarly growing willingness to let him shoot when he showed up at the home of the publicity-shy Brando.

"We related very well, and he started to take an interest in what I was doing," Avery recalled in an interview on "CBS This Morning."

"I finally got to the point where I said, 'I'd like to take a picture of you in the kitchen, but your kitchen is so dirty.' It was up to your chest in old bags and paper cartons and a lot of other things. I don't think he'd ever cleaned it, and I hinted, if you'd just clean up your act a little bit, then we could take pictures."

The result: shots of one of Hollywood's biggest stars taking out his trash.

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