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Leonard J. South, 92; Cinematographer Was Camera Operator on Many Hitchcock Classics

January 17, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Cinematographer Leonard J. South, the camera operator on nearly a dozen Alfred Hitchcock classics, including "North by Northwest" and "The Birds," and later the director of photography on Hitchcock's "Family Plot," has died. He was 92.

South, who had Alzheimer's disease, died of pneumonia Jan. 6 in a care facility in Northridge, said his son, film editor Leonard South II.

South began his three-decade association with Hitchcock as cinematographer Robert Burks' camera assistant on the 1951 film "Strangers on a Train."

South, who was soon elevated to camera operator, became part of what Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto called "the ongoing Hitchcock crew who came to know exactly what the director wanted and how to give it to him."

In addition to "North by Northwest" and "The Birds," South worked on Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder," "Rear Window," "To Catch a Thief," "The Trouble With Harry," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "Vertigo," "Marnie" and "Torn Curtain."

During that time, South was the man behind the lens for many famous Hitchcock sequences, including Cary Grant's evasion of a menacing crop-duster in "North by Northwest" and Tippi Hedren's being attacked by a flock of crows in "The Birds."

"Hitch was always trying to push the limits on techniques and to be different," South said in 1987. "The crew and actors went along, but I tell you, those [crop-duster and bird] scenes were some of the hardest I've ever been involved in. They called for absolutely perfect timing in situations that were really rather scary."

For the attack scene in "The Birds," bird handlers stood next to the camera, throwing crows at Hedren as she stood against a wall screaming.

"We [the camera crew] were under a plastic-type covering," South recalled.

"The birds were trained for the scene, but a few still got out of hand, and a lot of us, besides Tippi, got pecked and scratched."

South recalled that "people were scared of Hitch. He demanded absolute perfection. He ran everything exactly as he wanted it because he knew exactly what he was doing -- planning every last shot, piece of decor and bit of dialogue."

And, South added, "it was all formality with him. He always wore a dark suit and tie on the set, even when we were shooting on location in the North African heat. He expected some of us, including Burks and me, to do likewise."

When Hitchcock wasn't filming his movies, South worked on numerous other pictures, including "Hondo," "Houseboat," "Teacher's Pet," and "The Cincinnati Kid."

After advancing to cinematographer in the mid-1960s, South was the director of photography on films that included the 1968 Clint Eastwood western "Hang 'Em High" and the 1977 comedy "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo."

As a cinematographer, South also worked on many TV movies and series, including "That Girl," "Night Gallery," "The Rockford Files," "9 to 5," "Designing Women" and "Coach."

South teamed with Hitchcock again as cinematographer for the legendary director's final film, the 1976 comedy-thriller "Family Plot." By then, Hitchcock was in his mid-70s and in failing health.

In a 1979 interview for the Daily Pilot newspaper, South recalled that one morning on the "Family Plot" set, actor Bruce Dern, "a very outgoing, nervy guy," walked up to Hitchcock and said, "I understand you call all actors cattle. Does that mean me, Hitch?"

"I'd say, Bruce, you are the golden calf," Hitchcock deadpanned.

That, South recalled, "came right out of nowhere. Bruce laughed for half an hour."

For South, "Hitch spoiled me for other directors. I look for part of him in other people and it's not there. It's not possible. There is only one him."

Born on Long Island, N.Y., in 1913, South moved to Los Angeles in his early 20s. He launched his film career as a camera loader in the Warner Bros. special-effects department in the early 1940s and made training films as a member of the Army Air Forces during World War II.

He retired in his late 70s.

South, a former member of the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, also was a longtime board member of the American Society of Cinematographers, for which he served as president in 1989-90.

South lived for many years in Corona del Mar, where he was a member of the Balboa Yacht Club, and he competed in the Trans-Pacific Yacht Race and in races to Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco.

In addition to his son, the twice-divorced South is survived by his daughters, Linda South and Anne Marie Giansen; three grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

A private memorial service will be held at the water's edge on Santa Catalina Island.

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