Ray Farkas; Producer, Documentary Maker

Ray Farkas, an Emmy Award-winning TV producer, could approach anything -- even his own case of Parkinson's disease -- with disarming humor, friends said.
Ray Farkas, an Emmy Award-winning TV producer, could approach anything -- even his own case of Parkinson's disease -- with disarming humor, friends said. (By Robert Burgess)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

For Ray Farkas, an Emmy Award-winning producer and TV documentarian who died of colon cancer Jan. 4, the signature camera shot was a long-distance technique that, ironically, was so intimate and revealing it resembled eavesdropping.

Mr. Farkas, 71 at the time of his death at the Washington Home, would equip his subjects with wireless mikes in a setting where they were comfortable -- perhaps a park or a diner. He would ask a leading question to get them talking and then retreat to his camera 25 feet or farther away. The subjects soon would forget the camera and its telephoto lens, and the result, almost invariably, would be something natural, honest, unexpected.

His stories, with the quickly identifiable "Farkas Look," often aired on Fox TV's "America's Most Wanted." One example featured interviews with New Yorkers not long after 9/11.

"He found a very different way to get people talking about their fears and their feelings," said Phil Lerman, a former co-executive producer of "America's Most Wanted."

Friends and former colleagues said the technique's effectiveness had as much to do with Mr. Farkas's quirky, engaging personality as it did with camera placement. "No one could get people talking like Ray could," Lerman said. "It had to do with his unassuming manner and a sly, devilish smile that you couldn't help but respond to."

With his knobby knees poking out of a pair of shorts -- he wore them year-round -- he was both non-threatening to the people he filmed and fascinated by the stories they told. "You can't fake that. That was genuine Ray," Lerman said.

On an October day in 2004, Mr. Farkas himself was the subject. After receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, he chose to undergo a risky surgical procedure at Georgetown University Hospital called deep brain stimulation. Because he would remain conscious during the procedure and would feel no pain, he decided to direct and narrate a documentary of the experience.

The technique involves drilling two holes into the skull and implanting microelectrodes that deliver impulses into the brain to block the shakiness and unsteadiness that afflict patients with Parkinson's. Mr. Farkas was the third person to undergo the procedure at Georgetown.

With his sons manning two of the four cameras during the eight-hour operation and with Mr. Farkas at one point singing "If I Only Had a Brain," the result was a feature-length documentary called "It Ain't Television, It's Brain Surgery." Lerman wrote two songs for the documentary, including "I Need This Operation Like I Need a Hole in the Head."

"Ray loved to quote the first line of that song," said his wife, Sharon Metcalfe. "It went, 'You don't have to shake my hand, it shakes on its own just fine.' That was Ray. He could laugh in the face of anything."

Mr. Farkas was born in Kingston, N.Y., and grew up in Chambersburg, Pa. His father, a Hungarian Jew, and his mother, a Russian Jew, had immigrated to the United States in the early 1930s. His father ran a boys' clothing store and probably expected his son to take over the business, recalled George Trail, a retired diplomat and lifelong friend.

"He was such a free spirit, that was not in the cards," Trail said.

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