Haskell Wexler, one of Hollywood’s most famous and honored cinematographers and one whose innovative approach helped him win Oscars for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the Woody Guthrie biopic “Bound for Glory,” died Dec. 27. He was 93.
His son, Oscar-nominated sound man Jeff Wexler, confirmed the death but did not cite a cause.
A liberal activist, Mr. Wexler photographed some of the most socially relevant and influential films of the 1960s and 1970s, including the Jane Fonda-Jon Voight anti-war drama, “Coming Home” (1978), the Sidney Poitier-Rod Steiger racial drama, “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), and the Oscar-winning adaptation of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), starring Jack Nicholson.
He was also the rare cinematographer known enough to the general public to receive a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
When he wasn’t working on higher-budget studio fare, he traveled the world directing and photographing documentaries for favorite causes.
His 1969 “Medium Cool” mixed documentary and dramatic elements, telling the story of a fictional television photographer (Robert Forster) who covers the violence between Chicago police and protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The real-life unrest was filmed on the spot for the movie, and its “cinema vérité” approach was closely studied by aspiring filmmakers.
“I was under surveillance for the entire seven weeks I was in Chicago, by the police, the Army and the Secret Service,” Mr. Wexler once told a reporter.
Throughout his career, he was noted for his versatile and intuitive approach.
For “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), the last film to receive an Oscar for best black-and-white cinematography, he used hand-held cameras to capture the tension of the tirades between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The film, directed by Mike Nichols, was based on the Edward Albee play of scorching marital relations.
For “In the Heat of the Night,” he put silks over the tops of sets and aimed lights at their centers. His aim was to contribute to the tension between Poitier’s big-city black detective and Steiger’s Southern white lawman.
As visual consultant on George Lucas’s “American Graffiti” (1973), he hosed down the streets to achieve a moody, reflective style. He helped give Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” (1978) a hazy, dreamlike atmosphere.
Mr. Wexler was also noted for his clashes with directors. Francis Ford Coppola fired him during the filming of “The Conversation” (1974). Milos Forman dropped him during the filming of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Mr. Wexler shared the cinematography credit with Bill Butler.
“I don’t think there’s a movie I’ve been on that I didn’t think I could direct better,” Mr. Wexler said in 2005.
For his 2006 documentary “Who Needs Sleep?” Mr. Wexler turned his attention to the film industry itself, decrying the long hours endured by Hollywood set workers. It was inspired by the death of a worker who fell asleep driving his car after a 19-hour stint on a movie set.
Mr. Wexler’s other documentaries include: “The Bus” (1965), about the Freedom Riders who risked their lives to integrate the South in the 1960s; “Latino” (1985), which examined American policy in Nicaragua; “Interviews with My Lai Veterans” (1971), which shined a light on survivors of U.S. brutality in Vietnam; and “Introduction to the Enemy “ (1974), based on a trip to North Vietnam with Fonda and her then-husband, radical activist Tom Hayden.
“I don’t know why I developed a social consciousness,” Mr. Wexler told the Los Angeles Daily News in 1988, “but I really think I have a consciousness. I feel connected to everything and everybody in the world.
“That doesn’t mean you have to cover yourself with ashes or give everything away. I’m not that crazy,” he said. “But I hate to think in terms of left wing. It comes down to social consciousness. I’ve met people on the right who had compassion for human beings.”
Born into a well-to-do Chicago family on Feb. 6, 1922, Haskell Wexler was still in grade school when he went to work for a photographer involved in the trade-union movement. At age 12, he recorded his family’s vacation in Mussolini’s Italy with his family’s home-movie camera. As a high school student, he reportedly helped organize a strike at his father’s electronics factory.
His childhood friends included a fellow lifelong rebel: publisher Barney Rosset , who helped bring down censorship laws by publishing unexpurgated editions of D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.”
Mr. Wexler left the University of California at Berkeley 18 months into his studies to enlist in the Merchant Marine as the United States was about to enter World War II. After his ship was torpedoed off the tip of South Africa, Mr. Wexler helped some of the sailors join him in a lifeboat.
Returning to Chicago, he made films for the United Electrical Workers Union before moving to Hollywood in 1960. His work three years later on Elia Kazan’s immigrant drama “America, America” brought him instant acclaim and steady work.
“I think that was my best work,” Mr. Wexler told the Los Angeles Daily News. “I didn’t know so much [then], and at a certain level, ignorance allows you to take chances. And if you’re lucky, those chances can just soar.”
His later credits included “The Loved One” (1965), based on the Evelyn Waugh satire of the funeral trade, “Matewan” (1987), John Sayles’s drama about a coal miners’ strike in West Virginia, and “Colors” (1988), a police drama directed by Dennis Hopper.
His marriages to Nancy Ashenhurst and Marian Witt ended in divorce. In 1989, he married Rita Taggart. Besides his wife, survivors include two children from his first marriage, Kathy Wexler and Jeff Wexler; and a son from his second marriage, Mark Haskell.
At age 89, Mr. Wexler received an Emmy nomination as the cameraman for Billy Crystal’s “61*,” the HBO film about Roger Maris’s record-setting home run season. A few years earlier, in 2004, Mr. Wexler himself was the subject of a documentary, “Tell Them Who You Are,” directed by Mark Wexler, which depicted his father as an egomaniac with a hopelessly prickly disposition.
Adam Bernstein contributed to this report.