Cinematographer, Director and Actor. Nationality: American. Born: Dallas, Texas, 1934. Education: Attended Dallas public schools. Family: Married Jan Murray. Career: Spent early childhood in Guadalajara, Mexico; worked with local theater while in high school; early 1950s—camera-pusher and cameraman, then director, WFAATV; 1956—puppet show created for Dallas TV; then in Hollywood working for KHJ-TV; also actor on TV and in films (credits include small role in The Magnificent Seven ); 1964—cameraman for short film The Legend of Jimmy Blue Eyes ; also did film documentaries for Wolper Productions; 1970—first feature film as cinematographer, Bloody Mama ; 1978—directed first film, FM . Agent: Scott Harris, Harris and Goldberg, 2121 Avenue of the Stars, No. 950, Los Angeles, CA 90067.
Bloody Mama (Corman)
Vanishing Point (Sarafian); Harold and Maude (Ashby)
Sounder (Ritt); Get to Know Your Rabbit (De Palma); Pete 'n Tillie (Ritt); Lady Sings the Blues (Furie)
The Naked Ape (Driver)
Conrack (Ritt); Chinatown (Polanski)
Once Is Not Enough (Green); The Fortune (Nichols); Farewell, My Lovely (Richards)
The Bad News Bears (Ritchie); I Will, I Will . . . for Now (Panama)
Black Sunday (Frankenheimer); Which Way Is Up? (Schultz); Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg) (co)
Casey's Shadow (Ritt); The Cheap Detective (Moore)
Norma Rae (Ritt)
Tom Horn (Wiard)
Back Roads (Ritt)
Blue Thunder (Badham); Cross Creek (Ritt); Scarface (De Palma)
Nothing in Common (G. Marshall)
Overboard (G. Marshall); Real Men (Ponzi)
Knightwatch (F. Mann—for TV); Physical Evidence (Crichton)
Steel Magnolias (Ross)
The Guardian (Friedkin); Internal Affairs (Figgis); Navy Seals (Teague)
HouseSitter (Oz); Cool World (Bakshi)
Meteor Man (Townsend)
Clifford (Flaherty); World War II: When Lions Roared (Sargent—for TV); Star Trek: Generations (Carson)
The Grass Harp (Charles Matthau)
Letters from a Killer (Carson)
Lansky (McNaughton); The Dancing Cow (Goldstein)
Return to Me (Hunt); Fail Safe (for TV)
The Magnificent Seven (Sturges) (uncredited bit part)
The Long Rope (Witney) (role as Manuel); Susan Slade (Daves) (role as Manuel Alvarez)
Terror at Black Falls (Sarafian) (role as Carlos Avila); Hand of Death (Nelson) (role as Carlos)
The Legend of Jimmy Blue Eyes (cam—short); Invitation to a Gunfighter (Wilson) (role as Manuel)
Seconds (Frankenheimer) (2nd cam)
Champions: A Love Story (d); Portrait of a Stripper (d)
Belle Starr (d); Blinded by the Light (d)
Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography (as himself)
On Chinatown in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1975.
Millimeter (New York), March 1976.
On Tom Horn in Filmmakers Monthly (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), May 1980.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1983.
In Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers , by Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato, Berkeley, California, 1984.
Lighting Dimensions , November/December 1984.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1985.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1986.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1990.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1993.
McGilligan, P., in Take One (Montreal), no. 2, 1978.
Cleaver, T., " Scarface ," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), December 1983.
McCarthy, T., in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1984.
Rose, P., on Runaway in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), January 1985.
Erbach, K., on Nothing in Common in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1986.
Beeler, M., in Cinefantastique (Forest Park), vol. 26, no. 2, 1995.
* * *
John A. Alonzo represented—along with Vilmos Zsigmond, Gordon Willis, Conrad Hall, and others—a new breed of Hollywood cinematographer that entered the business during the 1970s whose work, like that of many new breed directors and editors at the time, challenged the classic style of Hollywood filmmaking by striving to be more experimental.
His career falls neatly into three segments. Initially, he journeyed to Los Angeles to make his fame and fortune as an actor; indeed for a short time he was the host of a locally produced children's show in Los Angeles. He got an uncredited bit part in The Magnificent Seven , John Sturges's western remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai , starring Yul Brynner. Bigger and better parts soon followed in such features as Delmer Daves's Susan Slade and the western Invitation to a Gunfighter , also starring Yul Brynner. On television, he had supporting roles in such hit series of the 1950s and 1960s as Perry Mason, Cheyenne, Temple Houston, Destry, Bewitched and The Wild, Wild West— where he appeared in two episodes, "The Night of the Golden Cobra" and "The Night of the Surreal McCoy." In the latter episode, he had the title role.
It was during this initial phase of his career that Alonzo decided he really wanted to work behind the camera. He spent many a day studying the work of great cinematographers, particularly Winton Hoch and James Wong Howe. It was Howe who helped him break into the industry. Howe was shooting Seconds in 1966 and needed a camera operator. Alonzo was picking up camera experience working on David Wolper television documentaries at the time, but had no union card. Howe and the director of Seconds , John Frankenheimer, sponsored Alonzo for union membership and his career was off and running. Between 1971 and 1974 Alonzo lensed such popular films as Vanishing Point , Sounder , Lady Sings the Blues , and director Roman Polanski's groundbreaking Chinatown .
For Chinatown , Alonzo was called upon to replace the film's original cinematographer, the legendary Stanley Cortez ( The Magnificent Ambersons, The Night of the Hunter ) whose old-guard methods of lighting and shooting Polanski found to be too slowly paced, causing the film to fall behind schedule. Alonzo's greater spontaneity both in the studio and on location—which stemmed from his experience shooting low budget films for Roger Corman, and greater familiarity with the day's newer, faster film speeds—made him an ideal replacement. His masterful evocation of a sun-baked Los Angeles of the 1930s darkened by shadows lurking everywhere with a hint of corruption virtually defined the cinematic style now known as neo-noir.
For Chinatown Alonzo earned his only (to date) Academy Award nomination. Though he didn't win, the Academy's acknowledgment of his brilliant work on Chinatown enabled him to pick and choose his next projects. There were a number of successful efforts such as Norma Rae in 1979 and Scarface in 1983 that defined this phase of his career. But there were no other major awards or breakthrough achievements. Thus, increasingly, Alonzo began to alternate work as a cinematographer with stabs at directing in an effort to gain more creative control.
He directed his first film, FM (an amusing, counter-cultural forerunner of the hit TV series WKRP In Cincinnati ) in 1978. The TV movies Champions: A Love Story , and Belle Starr , as well as numerous videos for MTV followed. Alonzo's directorial career never really took off, however, and so he has had to settle for finding the top venues to exhibit his talent as a cinematographer. He is still much in demand. But most of the films Alonzo has lensed in the 1980s and 1990s-including Meteor Man , an entry in the big screen Star Trek franchise, Internal Affairs , HouseSitter, and others—only serve to remind us of a talent serving a system that has given him little opportunity to match the early promise of his masterful Chinatown .
—Douglas Gomery, updated by John McCarty