Stories of Old Hollywood: Behind the Scenes With Legendary Photographer Sid Avery

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The late Sid Avery was a famous American photographer who is best known for capturing rare moments of Hollywood's biggest stars during the Golden Age. Avery had the uncanny knack of getting those around him to relax and open up, capturing a side to famous names like James Dean, Marlon Brando, Audrey Hepburn, and Elizabeth Taylor that no one had seen before. In a world before pushy paparazzi, the lives of celebrities were kept behind closed doors, making it a big deal when someone was allowed in. While Avery released his first book Hollywood at Home: A Family Album 1950-1965 in 1990, the collection was lacking in the stories people wanted to hear, which is why his son Ron Avery chose to release a new book late last year. Called Sid Avery: The Art of the Hollywood Snapshot, this book contains a collection of stories and anecdotes about working with your favorite stars but more than anything, it's about Sid.
Avery founded mptv Images to preserve moments worth remembering from the best Hollywood photographers. Including some one million images of celebrity legends by over 60 photographers, mptv is now run by Ron Avery and is just as passionate as ever about the power of photography and the importance of preserving our history. Sid Avery: The Art of the Hollywood Snapshot features images from the depths of mptv's archives, including outtakes, contact sheets, and never-before-seen images, as well as personal anecdotes and stories from Avery himself.

With so many famous Hollywood stars in front of Avery's camera, he had plenty of stories that he liked to regal his family with, including the time he shot Bob Hope for a series of California Federal Savings ads. Though Avery had worked with Hope a couple times before, he didn't know him very well. "Bob came in with his entourage and the people from the agency, and […] after a little short time of shooting my dad was getting a little frustrated because Bob had one smile. That was it," recalls Ron. "[My dad] couldn't seem to get anything different, so my dad just stepped back and said, 'God dammit Bob, get that shit-eating grin off your face!'" Everyone in the room was stunned by Avery's outburst, but luckily Hope liked it because he started to laugh, finally relaxing and giving Avery more to work with.
Always a car aficionado, Avery got to work with Steve McQueen and loved telling one particular story about the experience. During the shoot at McQueen's Hollywood Hills home on Solar Drive, the actor said he needed to go to his mechanic and stop by the studio to meet with a director, asking Avery if he'd like to go with him in his [1957 Jaguar] XKSS. Despite one of the present publicists warning Avery not to get in a car with McQueen, saying the action star drove like a maniac and that Avery would "pee his pants," Avery wasn't about to turn the offer down.

"So my dad rode with him down Nichols Canyon [in Los Angeles] and Steve was four wheel drifting the car, the sound of the open exhaust on the canyon walls, it was just an incredible ride. Coming the other way was this old '59 white Cadillac with big fins, and [behind the wheel] was an old guy and his head was barely over the steering wheel." Heading in opposite directions, the closer McQueen got to the Cadillac, the slower the old man drove. When they finally passed him, Avery looked back to see the Cadillac at a dead stop on the straightaway at the bottom of the canyon. "They got to the studio and Steve's publicist pulls up ten minutes later and says, 'You guys went down Nichols right? Did you see a guy in a white Cadillac? I had to go through there about five, ten minutes after you and the guy was sitting in the middle of the road.' The noise of the car had scared him so much he couldn't move," laughs Ron.
Another cool story surrounds tough-guy Marlon Brando, who had been renting out a little house with comedian Wally Cox at the time of shooting. The house was an absolute mess (with dishes piled high in the sink, bugs everywhere, and the beds unmade) and Avery didn't want to photograph Brando in those conditions. "My dad said, 'I can't shoot in here, you're going to have to clean this up.' So we've got pictures of Brando carrying boxes of trash out to the incinerator and burning them, straightening out a tangled mess of coat hangers, making his bed, and it's just so funny because you think of Brando and you think, 'This is not the kind of guy to do housework,'" Ron says. Avery also got plenty of pictures of Brando smiling openly, playing chess and with bongos, bringing out a playful side that many people wouldn't have associated with Brando prior.

Just because Avery was good didn't mean he never encountered difficult subjects. Clark Gable, for example, refused to allow any photographs to be taken inside his home. "[That] was the first time [my dad] ever had that request but because of who [Gable] was, he really respected it and he didn't try to talk him into it or chase him into the house." Avery also had a hard time with Shelley Winters and Zsa Zsa Gabor because "the rapport was not there."
Years after the height of Avery's career, Steven Soderbergh signed on to direct a remake of the classic 1960 Ocean's Eleven film starring the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop). Considering Avery had shot the photographs of the original cast, Ron thought it would be a great idea for him to do it again, with the new cast. Avery was apprehensive at first, but his son talked him into it. Once on set, everyone involved was thrilled to have him and one-by-one, many of the cast members took the time to chat with him.

"Probably the nicest most attentive one, surprisingly to me, was Brad Pitt. He went up to somebody from our side of the crew and said, 'Would you mind introducing me to Mr. Avery?' My dad didn’t even know who Brad was, he hadn't seen his films, but they were introduced and they spent a lot of time talking. Brad said, 'We wanted you to know that we're very grateful for you to come here and do this shoot, it means a lot to us,'" says Ron.
Everyone wanted to know all about the original Rat Pack and Avery had taken a binder of the original photos, including those showing a mock fight sequence, and signed them for everyone. "They were all very interested in that and they all made him feel very important; I was kind of worried when we got there they [would think], 'Oh, who is this old guy?' Everyone there was just first-rate," recalls Ron. "It was nice to see him in his element one last time and it was just before he got really ill, and to see him having fun and really doing what he really...just did with such ease."

If there's anything Ron wants people to take about from this new book, it's that Avery was an incredibly lucky guy who was always in the right place at the right time. He knew how to take advantage of an opportunity and had no problem changing the direction of his career, from dinner theater to celebrity home layouts to commercials and eventually the mptv archives. "He was a guy who got to do exactly what he always wanted to do. It wasn’t work, it was fun," Ron says proudly. "No matter what he was shooting — a car, a woman, food, cosmetics, a celebrity, furniture — he just had so much fun doing it."

Mila Pantovich

An avid traveler, Mila Pantovich splits her time between San Diego, CA and Banff, AB Canada. She has been working with JustLuxe as a writer and editor since 2012 and has been featured in several publications, including Huffington Post. Additionally, she works in content design at Intuit. Follow her travels on Instagram: @MilaPantovich ...(Read More)

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