Obituary: Sam Shaw
Thursday 17 June 1999
Shaw not only took these photographs, he came up with the original ideas, persuaded the actors to agree to the poses, and "styled" them with his own hands; four professional jobs by today's industry standards. But he was, too, the producer of John Cassavetes's films. A fixer, a go-between and publicist, Shaw was a well-read, sophisticated and charming cultural omnivore with an awesome range of contacts and interests.
Born in 1912, Shaw grew up tough and poor in New York's Little Italy, where his creative energy was evident at a young age; he created sculptures out of mud to support himself. Offered a choice between a scholarship to the Pratt Institute to paint, or using the grant money to rent a studio in which to work, he took the studio, which he shared with the black artist Romare Bearden. He found work as a courtroom artist, then as a political and sports cartoonist on The Brooklyn Eagle, and finally became a full- time photojournalist with covers for Life and Look. He moved into film as a stills photographer, and demonstrated an ability to integrate with the biggest stars, coming up with ideas for publicity campaigns, script changes and plots.
In 1951 Shaw persuaded Brando, who "thought it was vulgar", to be photographed in his undergarment for A Streetcar Named Desire. On Viva Zapata (1952) Shaw was a mutual friend of Brando and Anthony Quinn, even judging a peeing contest between them (he declared it a draw). In 1958 he covered the filming of One Eyed Jacks for Life whilst also acting as a "Fat Checker" for Brando; "I'd point to my chin, telling him to keep his head up so there wouldn't be a double chin." In 1979 Shaw published his photographs and reminiscences in Brando in the Camera Eye.
Shaw first met Monroe on the set of Viva Zapata, where she worked as his driver. When he read the script of The Seven Year Itch he thought of Monroe for the part of "the girl upstairs", and recalled photographs he had taken for Friday magazine of sailors at Coney Island, with their girlfriends' skirts blowing in the wind. He devised the publicity stunt in which Monroe's skirt was blown up by a gust of air escaping from an subway vent on Lexington Avenue. The event gathered 15,000 fans (and almost as many journalists), blocked Manhattan traffic and ended her marriage to Joe DiMaggio. Shaw himself took the official photographs of the scene in the film, which were shot in studio.
These impossibly famous images later led to a $100m lawsuit Shaw brought against his son Larry for illegally reproducing Marilyn pictures. Shaw himself published three books about the actress: Marilyn Monroe as The Girl (1955), The Joy of Marilyn (1979) and Marilyn Among Friends (1987).
The first film Shaw produced was Paris Blues in 1961, under the auspices of Marlon Brando's company "Pennebaker". A romantic tale of jazz musicians in France, starring Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier, it was very much of Shaw's aesthetic, and included a moody score by Louis Armstrong. The link between this movie and Cassavetes's films is obvious, a poetic vision of bruised male grace and nocturnal camaraderie.
Shaw introduced Cassavetes to burlesque houses in 1950s New York and remained one of his most devoted collaborators. Indeed a section in Husbands where the men discover themselves transported in a drunken fugue to London was inspired by Shaw's experiences during Viva Zapata. Shaw left Brando drunk on set in Texas one night; the next day he was spotted strolling in Manhattan.
Shaw was also Cassavetes's production designer on Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), a storyboard artist for several films and producer of A Woman Under the Influence (1974, for which he also won several international awards for his advertising campaign), Opening Night (1978) and Gloria (1980).
Many of Shaw's best photographs of Cassavetes were published in the German book Cassavetes: DirActor (1993) and shown both at the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in New York and the Venice Biennale.
Sam Shaw, photographer and film producer: born New York 15 January 1912; married (one son, two daughters); died Westwood, New Jersey 5 April 1999.
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