Whether he was working in color or black and white, cinematographer Gordon Willis conceived the look of a film in gradations. In "The Godfather" trilogy, the Don was shrouded in the shadows of his underworld. In "All the President's Men," reporters tracked down sources in dimly lit parking garages and conferred with their editor on his front porch at night. His view of Woody Allen's "Manhattan" captured New York characters negotiating the cityscape.
"Light means a lot to me in life," he said in a 2002 interview with NPR's Terry Gross, describing his view of his longtime hometown, New York. "You move from a brilliant splash of sun to kind of like a midnight shadow ... it looks like welding sometimes, it's so beautiful."
Willis, whose moody aesthetic earned him the nickname "Prince of Darkness," died Sunday at his home in North Falmouth, Mass., on Cape Cod. He was 82.
Helen Willis, the filmmaker's wife, confirmed his death after a battle with cancer.
Despite his no-nonsense, often prickly attitude on set, he became a favorite among top Hollywood directors such as Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola and Alan J. Pakula. He served as the director of photography on nearly three dozen films, including such classics as "The Godfather" trilogy, "Annie Hall" and "All the President's Men."
His most frequent collaborator was Allen, with whom he worked on eight films, including "Manhattan" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo." The pair enjoyed such a long partnership, Willis once surmised, because neither enjoyed "fooling around" while working.
"One night he and I were having dinner and somebody asked, 'What is it you both like?'" Willis told the Hollywood Reporter in 2009. "Woody answered, 'It's not really that we like the same things; we hate the same things!'"
In a statement, Allen said Willis was "one of the few people who truly lived up to all of the hype about him." Coppola was equally effusive in his own prepared comments Monday — though he acknowledged that Willis could be irritable.
"He was a brilliant, irascible man, a one of a kind," Coppola said. "My favorite description was that 'he ice-skated on the film emulsion.' I learned a lot from him."
Indeed, Willis admitted he and Coppola often butted heads while in production on the three "Godfather" films. The cinematographer set out a firm plan before getting to work, while Coppola had a more easygoing, spontaneous style.
"I probably gave him more problems than he gave me," Willis told the Hollywood Reporter. "I was not an easy person for Francis to deal with. But our personalities combined to produce some great work."
Though revered by cinephiles, Willis did not earn much recognition from the Hollywood elite at the height of his career. He did not receive an Academy Award nomination for his cinematography until 1984, for his work on Allen's "Zelig," then again in 1991 for "The Godfather: Part III."
Willis was eventually honored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in 2009, when he was given an honorary Oscar.
"In his day, everyone wanted to see big movie stars lit up," Stephen Pizzello, editor-in-chief of American Cinematographer magazine and a friend of Willis, said Monday. "He went to the other way and really stood firm on it. He almost got fired a few times on 'The Godfather,' but Coppola backed him up. And now, a lot of the stuff you see is moody and dark — that's all because of him."
Willis tried his hand at directing only once in 1980 on "Windows," a sexual thriller starring Talia Shire that was both a critical and commercial flop. Calling it the biggest mistake of his career, Willis said he wasn't cut out to be a director because he couldn't handle the egos of his actors.
"I don't have the patience to sit around all day waiting for stars who get paid $20 million to come out of their trailers," he told the New York Daily News in 1997.
He did get along with some performers, however, including Alan Arkin, who hired Willis to be the director of photography on his directorial debut, 1971's "Little Murders."
"I learned a great deal from him," Arkin recalled in an interview on Monday. "We had a meeting before the film started and he warned me not to do something that would take 'a piece out of the ball.' He explained that a movie should be like a bowling ball rolling down the alley — if there's a hunk knocked out of it, it's gonna wobble. The performances, the script, the cinematography — he wanted there to be a unity to everything."
He was born on May 28, 1931, in Queens, N.Y., to parents who were dancers on Broadway. During Willis' youth, his father worked at Warner Bros.' Brooklyn-based studio as a motion picture makeup artist. After initially pursuing a career as an actor, the young Willis found he was drawn less to performing and more to setting up lighting and scenery.
He went on to work as a photographer in the Air Force during the Korean War. He then joined the cameramen's union and began filming commercials and documentaries. He was first hired as a cinematographer by director Aram Avakian on 1970's "End of the Road."
Willis spent most of his life in New York, moving with his wife in 1998 to Cape Cod, where his home carried few reminders of his Hollywood life: Only his bathroom was decorated with posters of "Manhattan" and "All the President's Men."
Like a true cinematographer, Willis said he was drawn to the beach side town largely because of its light.
"I hate to be in rooms that don't have dimension and beautiful light," he told NPR's Gross. "And I have the same feeling about living in a place that doesn't have dimension and beautiful light. I mean, I hate Los Angeles. It's like living inside a toaster oven, you know. I mean, it's awful. The light stinks."
Besides his wife, Helen, whom he married in 1955, Willis is survived by their children, Susan Willis-Powers of San Diego, Gordon Willis Jr. of Norwell, Mass., and David Willis of Florence, Mass.; along with five grandchildren.
Times staff writer Claire Noland contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun