A SHOOTING STAR With Emmy for camera work, Catonsville's Tim Suhrstedt is really clicking in Hollywood

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tim Suhrstedt learned of his Emmy Award the same way he earned it: without fanfare.

Mr. Suhrstedt, a Hollywood cinematographer, was on the road, scouting out a desolate film location in North Carolina last September when he got the news from his 7-year-old daughter.

"Daddy! Daddy!" Tess squealed on the phone. "Guess what? You beat out that Dr. Quinn guy!"

And other top cameramen, to boot.

Mr. Suhrstedt, 47, won the Emmy for "Chicago Hope," the television drama he shot last season. Not that viewers noticed his award on the televised ceremony. Technical Emmys were presented backstage. Mandy Patinkin, star of "Chicago Hope," hoisted his award in triumph before a nationwide audience. Mr. Suhrstedt's name barely made a mention in the next day's newspaper.

When he got home to Los Angeles, Mr. Suhrstedt and his family held their own Emmy ceremony. He placed the keepsake on the fireplace mantel and addressed his wife and kids.

Talk about Kodak moments. Alas, Mr. Suhrstedt's acceptance speech is not preserved on celluloid. The man honored for his photographic excellence neglected to film the scene.

The Emmy is the first for Mr. Suhrstedt, an affable, soft-spoken director of photography whose credits run from Pert shampoo commercials to TV's "Picket Fences." He has filmed 20 motion pictures, including the recently completed "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday," starring Michelle Pfeiffer.

Not bad for a guy from Catonsville who didn't own a camera until he was 24.

"I never took pictures as a kid," Mr. Suhrstedt says. Piano lessons, yes. Photographs, no. The interest wasn't there. Instead, he shot baskets in the back yard of his parents' Colonial home, and played Little League baseball.

"This [career] really came out of left field for me," he says. "I never could have predicted it."

Mr. Suhrstedt attended Catonsville High School, played sports and soared academically. An honors student, he enjoyed films, but for all the teen reasons: i.e., a movie's lighting was "right" if the theater was dark enough to snuggle.

Gradually, he began seeing films in a new light. His favorite movie hangouts were the 5 West and the 7 East, two now-defunct Baltimore theaters that specialized in obscure and foreign films. Quirky, artistic movies intrigued him, as did any film with Alan Arkin, his favorite actor.

"I remember sitting in the Westview Cinema in 1966, laughing at [Arkin] in 'The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!' " says Mr. Suhrstedt. "He's a hero of mine."

Last year, Mr. Suhrstedt worked alongside Mr. Arkin's son, Adam, a star of "Chicago Hope." In November, the Arkins invited the Suhrstedts to dinner, where the cameraman hobnobbed with his idol. "I couldn't have imagined doing that 30 years ago," he says.

Others he has shot on film: a young Julia Roberts ("a sweet, enthusiastic girl who learned everyone's name on the set"), Macaulay Culkin ("a really good soul who was nice to my daughters") and Claire Danes ("there's an unnerving sort of wisdom about her"). Mr. Suhrstedt was director of photography for such movies as "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," "Mystic Pizza" and "Getting Even With Dad."

His handiwork -- lighting the sets, shooting scenes and developing film -- has impressed Tinseltown moguls.

"Tim's shooting style has a richness to it," says Marykay Powell, who produced the "Gillian" film. "There's no flat Technicolor look. He has the capacity to make even the scenery a character in his movies."

Witness the Emmy-winning "Chicago Hope" episode, in which Mr. Patinkin's Dr. Andrew Geiger discloses that his schizophrenic wife has drowned their infant son. One poignant scene has Dr. Geiger at home plate in empty Wrigley Field late at night. He's contemplating life while teeing up golf balls and whacking them off the ivy-covered walls.

It was the only scene of the series filmed in Chicago all season, and critics loved it.

Says Mr. Suhrstedt: "I enjoy making the film look not only good, but right for the story. When everything clicks, it's really very satisfying."

"Tim is brilliant -- a 'nine' going on '10,' " says Michael Pressman, a Hollywood producer/director who has worked with Mr. Suhrstedt on "Chicago Hope," and numerous other projects. "His cinematography is warm, soft, inviting and incredibly pleasant to the eye.

"Remember, Tim is still refining his style. His craft demands such knowledge that many cameramen don't blossom until their 40s. His best years are ahead."

Mr. Suhrstedt literally worked his way to the top: His first job was sweeping floors on the sets at Maryland Public Television in Owings Mills. It was a humble start for a Phi Beta Kappa from Lehigh University.

He'd gone to college to study engineering, switched to economics and become intrigued with English literature. One of his English professors, a film buff, happened to teach a course in cinema history. On a whim, Mr. Suhrstedt took the class, embraced "Citizen Kane," reveled in "Birth of A Nation."

"I was fascinated," he says.

For his senior honors thesis, he created his own movie, a 12-minute musical montage of his college town. "I borrowed a Super 8 camera, enlisted the help of friends and made this silly film," he says. "No dialogue, just the images and sounds of Bethlehem [Pa.]."

Galavanting around the city, shooting with second-hand gear, he thought: This is the most interested I've ever been in anything.

And: I wonder if I could make a living at it?

"Nothing else piqued my interest," he says. "I was a good student, but not passionate about anything. After college, I'd always just seen myself going to graduate school in business." Suddenly, that choice paled by comparison.

After graduation in 1973, Mr. Suhrstedt mulled his options and followed his heart. While colleagues moved on toward Wall Street, Mr. Suhrstedt returned to Baltimore and began work at MPT as a production assistant. His tools? A broom and hammer.

"I built sets, cleaned up and helped push cameras around," he says. "My parents, who'd paid for my education, couldn't have understood what I was up to; my decision must have looked completely insane."

In his spare time, Mr. Suhrstedt tagged along on film shoots, learning the basics of his craft.

He bought his first camera, a Nikon, and built a darkroom in the house he'd rented in Reisterstown. Evenings found him studying photography at the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

The hard work paid off. Six months after joining MPT, he was promoted to cameraman. His job was operating the equipment for such locally produced public television shows as "Hodgepodge Lodge" and "Wall Street Week."

He later filmed snippets of theatrical plays, ballets and concerts for "The Critic's Choice," a weekly review of Baltimore's arts performances.

In 1976, Mr. Suhrstedt decided to move on. He quit his job, hugged his folks, grabbed his camera and moved to Los Angeles -- a 28-year-old in pursuit of a dream.

He rented a garage apartment in Laurel Canyon, enrolled at the American Film Institute and scrambled to find work in Hollywood, while living hand-to-mouth.

"I figured I could get by, if I wanted it badly enough," he says. "I always had faith."

He cut his teeth on wretched films, independent horror flicks that reeked of blood and screams and awful acting.

"It's pretty frightening to watch those movies now," says Mr. Suhrstedt, who has several of them on tape. "Even though they weren't films of which I was particularly proud, it was the accepted way for people to learn -- and a great way to hone your craft."

Such films generally operated on limited budgets, says Mr. Suhrstedt, who met his wife, costume designer Deborah Scott, on the set of a slasher called "Don't Answer the Phone." How romantic.

"She was the costume department for that movie," he says.

His first solo effort, as director of photography, came in another chiller, "The House on Sorority Row." Coincidentally, the film was shot in Baltimore in 1981, in an old house on Greenspring Avenue.

The movie failed to impress Mr. Suhrstedt's parents. "It was an awful, terrible thing," his mother, Jeanie, recalls. "I thought, 'Oh, Lord, this is going to be his career? A Phi Beta Kappa from Lehigh, and this is what he's doing?'

"But Tim was confident that if he kept plugging away, things would work. And he did plug. He paid his dues."

Those early films, while forgettable, helped shape his cinematic style, says Mr. Suhrstedt. "They weren't classy pieces of work, or those I'd tell people to go see. But while working on movies I didn't like, I would experiment with different lighting techniques and camera angles, and apply them later to better films."

In 1982, Mr. Suhrstedt was summoned to work on two unfinished films for director Orson Welles, who was struggling to complete several projects on a shoestring budget in his latter years.

Citizen Kanes, the movies were not, says Mr. Suhrstedt, who found the one-time directorial genius in declining health at his estate.

"[Welles'] house was a mess, unkempt, with film cans everywhere," he says. "Orson himself was huge. He'd almost lost his capacity to walk, he was so overweight. But he was still sharp, with all his wits about him."

For several days, Mr. Suhrstedt worked with Welles, whose early movies he'd studied in college.

"It was ... depressing," he says. "I mean, here was a genius who'd lost it, through his excesses. It was sad to realize he was never going to finish those two films, but just to have the chance to shoot with him for a couple of days, and to hear his stories, was memorable."

Gradually the independent movie scripts improved, as did Mr. Suhrstedt's standing in the industry. In 1989, he was accepted into the International Photographers Guild, a union for cinematographers, allowing him to work on bigger studio productions with directors like Peter Bogdanovich. He teamed with Mr. Bogdanovich on "Noises Off" -- a well-received film comedy with Carol Burnett, John Ritter and Michael Caine.

He kept his hand in television, too, filming everything from chewing-gum commercials to a Public Broadcasting Service "WonderWorks" special to cable movies ("Dead Solid Perfect," with Randy Quaid). Mr. Suhrstedt also shot a few episodes of "The Wonder Years" in 1991, then jumped to "Picket Fences" and, last year, to "Chicago Hope."

"What he did on 'Hope' was extraordinary," says Michael Pressman, the executive consultant for that series. "The lighting [on the sets] was so naturalistic and yet so subtly stylized that it felt special.

"Tim's approach to cinematography is understated; he does not intrude. He lights a scene and it looks and feels real. He is the ultimate in illusion-making."

Emmy voters also saw a supreme talent. Other nominees for the award for best cinematography in an episodic series were three science-fiction shows ("The X-Files," "Babylon 5" and "Star Trek: Voyager"), a western ("Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman") and a police drama ("NYPD Blue").

Winning the Emmy "validates my career choice," says Mr. Suhrstedt. "It's something tangible for my parents, too. If not for their encouragement, I might have talked myself out of this."

Gone is the garage apartment, replaced by a modern, three-story home in the Hollywood Hills. Gene Autry lives next door; Roddy McDowall, across the street.

While Mr. Suhrstedt's lifestyle has changed, his work ethic has not, says Deborah, his wife. "His background is more conservative than most in this business," she says. "He hates being between jobs, and 'out of work.'

"He still has those middle-class roots; Tim would work 365 days a year, if he could."

The Suhrstedts collaborated last summer on the "Gillian" movie: He masterminded the camera work; she, the costumes. "People warned us [about working together], but we had a great time," says Ms. Scott, whose wardrobe credits include "E.T.", "Back to the Future," "Legends of the Fall" and, most recently, "Heat."

"We made a lot of decisions together, on how to coordinate lighting and costumes," she says. "I'd ask him details with which I wouldn't normally bother a director of photography. But Tim has a calming presence on the set; he's not temperamental at all."

Marykay Powell, the movie's producer, agrees. Other cinematographers can be high-strung and anxious, she says. "A hysterical one can make for a very intense set, because he controls the largest number of people -- as many as 50 cameramen, electricians and grips.

"I've worked with a lot of good [cinematographers], many of them high-maintenance types who need constant reassuring. Tim doesn't need any stroking; he just delivers."

Ms. Powell, a former Baltimorean, met Mr. Suhrstedt for the first time on a North Carolina beach. He was looking for a desolate location for "Gillian" and she, as the movie's producer, had come to check him out. As they exchanged pleasantries, her ears perked up. "What's that I hear in your voice, hon?" Ms. Powell asked, in her best Baltimore dialect.

They bonded right there, on the sandy set.

She: "I went to Edmondson High."

He: "I used to go to Edmondson Village all the time. Remember the monkeys in the window of the Hess shoe store there?"

She: "Remember them? My father designed and decorated that window!"

"We literally bored the whole crew, talking in Baltimorese," Ms. Powell says. "There's something special about meeting other Baltimoreans [in Hollywood]. I mean, you don't see it in people who meet from Cleveland. They say, 'Oh, you're from Cleveland, too?' and that's it. But we all stay Baltimore people forever."

Mr. Suhrstedt calls the "Gillian" movie -- a romantic fantasy billed as " 'The Big Chill' Meets 'Ghost' " -- the apex of his career: "intelligent script, good actors and great locations." The film, adapted from an off-Broadway play, was made mostly along the shores of Nantucket and North Carolina, where whimsical lighting and fickle ocean breezes continually vexed Mr. Suhrstedt's camera crews.

Therefore, he says, "what looks like a simple film is actually quite complicated. One two-minute scene, which appears to take place on a rocky beach in Nantucket, was only partly shot there. Other parts were shot in North Carolina, on a beach in L.A., and in a cavernous old airplane hangar in Long Beach, Calif., where we 'built' a beach of dunes."

Why? Mr. Suhrstedt wanted perfect lighting to film the short but moody scene.

"The scene starts in the Atlantic, moves to the Pacific and ends up on a stage in California, where we piled sand, rocks and sea grass from Nantucket," he says.

Will moviegoers notice? Producer Powell says no.

"That's why you cast the director of photography with as much care as you do the actors," she says.

Though film production is his forte, Mr. Suhrstedt hasn't turned his back on television, particularly those series with provocative scripts.

"My first love is always to shoot a good movie," he says. "But I'm not finished with TV. In a perfect world, I'd like to jump back and forth, and mix it up. There's less of a stigma attached to doing TV today, especially shows like 'Chicago Hope,' 'Picket Fences,' 'NYPD Blue' and 'Homicide.'

"The quality of quality TV has come way up, while the quality of movies has really taken a nose dive."

Mr. Surhstedt left his job photographing "Chicago Hope" when he got the "Gillian" job. When production on the film ended recently, he was out of work.

Between jobs, Mr. Suhrstedt likes to return to his roots. Last summer, he flew to Baltimore to see the folks, visit Harborplace and take in an Oriole game -- another camera-clicking tourist at Camden Yards. Except that his snapshots probably turn out better than most.

"We went to a ballgame, and Tim turned in his seat and went click-click-click-click-click, just like that. He must have taken 15 pictures in a row," says Carl Suhrstedt, his father.

"I guess he gets a pretty good break on developing his film."

One evening during that visit home, while resting on his parents' porch in Catonsville, Mr. Suhrstedt heard squeals of laughter and found his daughters, Tess and Hana, 11, catching lightning bugs. Instinctively, he reached for his camcorder and began shooting.

No lights! camera! action! on this Suhrstedt film -- just a sweet home movie of children chasing fireflies at dusk. Tess especially was smitten with the creatures, which aren't found in California.

"It was," Mr. Suhrstedt says, "a great piece of videotape."

It won't win an Emmy, but it did win Tess' heart.

MIKE KLINGAMAN is a reporter for The Sun.

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