Sid swore, to anyone who would listen, that he’d never asked Marlon Brando to take out the trash.
Granted, Sid admitted he’d told Brando that his place was a pigsty and the actor needed to clean it up—the kind of blunt order people didn’t give to Brando, then or ever. But Hollywood is nothing if not a place of myth, and there are few movie stars who spawned more of them than Brando. So perhaps it was inevitable that the tale of photographer Sid Avery’s visit to Marlon Brando’s bungalow in Beverly Glen would mushroom into legend.
It was 1955—the year Brando won the best-actor Oscar for On the Waterfront. And Sid (no one ever called him Avery) had been assigned by The Saturday Evening Postto shoot its taciturn star. Brando had no time for pictures; he begged off, telling Sid he was packing for a trip to New York. Undaunted, Sid hustled over, eventually squeezing in a portfolio’s worth of shots: Brando on the couch with his bongos, Brando listening to records, Brando clowning. (If nothing else, Sid’s reputation was burnished for the simple fact he’d captured images of Brando in a good mood.) Meandering into the kitchen, the photographer found a room It probably did not occur to Sid Avery that asking brooding Hollywood mavericks to tidy up their slatternly houses was probably not the best way to get them to pose for revelatory portraiture. But, then again, Sid never found himself caught in the high beams of the chimerical stars he photographed. It was his job, he knew, to slice through that—one candid shot here, one stolen moment there—and reveal screen personalities as the public never saw them. Which explains how Sid Avery, on a lovely afternoon in 1955, came away with a shot of a rugged, recalcitrant Marlon Brando hauling a cardboard Campbell’s Soup box, overflowing with trash, out to the incinerator.
He looked more like an accountant than a celebrity photographer, with his long, lean mug and his eyes a bit too far apart and that pendulous nose, hanging there like a door knocker. In youthful photos he seems more like a contract player from MGM, the goofy, rubber-faced pal always screwing things up for the leading man as he’s about to get the girl. But with a single snapshot of teenagers Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland—taken at a New Year’s Eve party 75 years ago—Sid Avery launched one of the most prolific, if almost completely unsung, photographic careers that Hollywood has ever known. He would die at age 83, in 2002, largely overlooked by cinema historians and photography buffs, partly due to the fact that he lacked the requisite polish (of a Hurrell, a Horst, or a Halsman) and the movie-colony pedigree (of insiders such as Jean Howard, Ruth Orkin, or Jerome Zerbe).
Sid shot almost every cinema giant of the mid-20th century and pulled off a feat surpassing even that: he captured them unguarded, stripping away the studio and P.R. artifice to find the people hiding underneath. Audrey Hepburn on a bicycle. Bogart at the helm of his boat. Brando taking out the trash. “That’s Hollywood for you, then and now—a precious, private village where the citizens either live in glass houses or barricade themselves behind fortresses,” critic Josef Woodard once wrote in the Los Angeles Times in a review of a long-ago gallery retrospective of Sid Avery’s work. “[His] photographs gain charm with the passage of time, as we look back on the pre-counterculture era with longing. Innocence isn’t what it used to be.” Neither, sadly, is glamour—a commodity since cheapened at the altar of reality television, step-and-repeat backdrops, and movie stars’ Twitter feeds.
What Sid documented was nothing less than the Los Angeles equivalent of the Mad Men era. “I was about two episodes in when I realized, Wait a minute,” says Bruce McBroom, who in the 50s began an apprenticeship under Sid (and later made his own name as the man who shot pinup Farrah Fawcett in a red bathing suit for the most popular poster ever produced). “That Mad Men feel of it was what Sid was creating. Sid had the style. Not only did I learn photography from him, I learned wines, clothing, cars, and everything else of that period.”
Amerchant’s son, Sid was hardly to the Hollywood manor born. The youngest of six children of a Russian immigrant couple, he and his family moved from Akron to L.A. when he was a toddler. By his teenage years he was something of a hooligan, an amateur featherweight boxer, and a crack mechanic. (He rescued a brakeless 1916 Dodge touring car from the junkyard, installing candles for headlights.)
He found a mentor in his uncle, the landscape photographer Max Tatch, and eventually went to work assisting the man who would become The *Saturday Evening Post’*s West Coast correspondent and star lensman, Gene Lester (later famous for his provocative portraits of Marilyn Monroe). Sid, according to a close confidant, despised Lester and considered him an “operator.” So, in the 1930s, he opened his own, modest studio in an old dentist’s office, where he quickly built a business producing glossy headshots for aspiring actresses and chorines.
After being shipped off to Europe during World War II, Sid was attached to an army photography unit with George Stevens, who would later direct the epic Giant. The young Avery’s Stateside return proved to be a case of impeccable timing. Hollywood was never more glittering than it was in the late 40s and 50s, a symbol of America’s ascendancy. And over the next two decades Sid would become one of the go-to shooters that the mass movie and picture magazines—Photoplay, Collier’s, the Post—turned to for the family-album-style star portraits their readers gobbled up like matinee popcorn. “Sid had this incredible sparkle of humor,” says cosmetics queen Tova Borgnine, widow of the late Ernest Borgnine, whom Sid captured fresh from winning a best-actor Oscar for Marty, in 1956. “The [Kirk] Douglases, the Bogarts—practically every one in the golden era had their portraits done by Sid.”
In 1961, Sid shot a portfolio with an up-and-coming comedian named Bob Newhart. Like the subject himself, the resulting photos—Newhart as a switchboard operator, Newhart as a duffer on the golf course, Newhart as a gimpy decathlete—are loopy, charming, and original. “We both sort of just ad-libbed it,” Newhart recalls today. “I think it was my idea to go through the hurdle, rather than over it.” But the rat-a-tat array of picture situations was pure Sid.
Still, even more than his sense of humor, Sid had a knack for disarming people. Notably, famous people. Devoid of guile, he showed up for his shoots looking like a stylish, mensch-y next-door neighbor. Which made his subjects comfortable doing the one thing many of the most famous film directors of the day could not get them to do: relax. The trick, says his son, Ron, who now manages Sid’s vast archive (estimated at 350,000 images, most of them still unseen by the public): “He saw that if you didn’t crowd them and get in their face, be overbearing or over-direct them, you could get a lot more out of them, because they were just being themselves.” “Sid always felt he was not a big deal,” says Bruce McBroom. “And part of gaining their confidence was that it wasn’t an act. He kept everything really simple, and his whole idea of doing that was to photograph people off guard, where they didn’t have an entourage.”
There was Yul Brynner with his stamp collection. Rock Hudson reading in bed. Tuesday Weld leafing through a book of paper dolls (of herself!). Jack Benny on a bicycle. Dean Martin smoking. Lauren Bacall smoking. Gregory Peck smoking. (There was a lot of smoking.) Ethel Merman’s wedding to Ernest Borgnine—at Chasen’s. (Alas, they split up a month later. When Sid heard the news—on the radio, while riding in his gunmetal Jaguar 3.8 coupe—he simply tossed their newly printed wedding album out the car window.)If it all sounds like so much Us Weekly, look at the photos. It was Sid Avery, for instance, who took the renowned low-angle, black-and-white group shot of the expanded Rat Pack for the film Ocean’s Eleven, one of the most classic cast photos of all time.
“He had the vision to record these people in their natural environments,” says David Fahey, the prominent Los Angeles gallerist and one of the founders, with Sid, of mptv Images. “In those days everyone wanted to have a personal look behind the veil, to see what these people were really like. And Sid approached it that way. I think that’s the thing that sets him apart.” Indeed, many of Avery’s portraits transcend magazine art, approaching iconography: Elizabeth Taylor, her eyes closed, sunning herself on the set of Giant; James Dean and Natalie Wood on the back lot of Rebel Without a Cause; Anthony Perkins, in white buckskins, shining his car.
It was Sid who eventually wore down the notoriously gruff Humphrey Bogart to allow him access for intimate pictures of the actor with Lauren Bacall and their son, Stephen, at home—then got a Bogie escort to Romanoff’s that night as a reward. “Sid and Sinatra were on a first-name basis,” recalls Bruce McBroom, who assisted on one of Avery’s most rewarding shoots: Sinatra in his slate-gray suit and jaunty fedora during a Capitol recording session in the 1950s. “Frank would say, ‘Hey, Sid, come over here,’ Sid would say, ‘O.K., Frank,’ and people would just look around at each other. Because no one ever called him Frank except for Dean and Sammy and his closest friends. But he trusted Sid.”
In 1960, Sid traveled up to a cozy house in the Hollywood Hills to photograph Steve McQueen and his then wife, Neile. This was before McQueen’s reputation—for being reclusive, for being difficult, for being just odd—came into its own. Oozing machismo, McQueen, with his pale-blue eyes and fuck-off swagger, would help redefine American masculinity in the 60s. Yet Sid’s pictures showed something deeper that has been lost in all the McQueen lore: The impishness in the eyes. Mirth. And an early sense of impeccable taste. In one photo, McQueen stands with his back to the kitchen counter in a white short-sleeved button-down, white pants, and fashionable leather sandals. There may be no more elegant image of a man eating breakfast cereal.
Today, Neile Adams McQueen remembers Sid’s visit well. “Cars and motorcycles were Steve’s balls,” she says. And he’d often abduct members of the press for white-knuckle, curve-hugging spins down to the MGM lot. “He would always take the photographers in the car with him to see what their mettle was.”
That day Sid, an old motorhead himself, readily agreed. McQueen put a broomstick on the throttle to warm up his sports car, dashed back into the house to grab a jacket, and then pulled out of the driveway. One of the world’s most famous leading men—and the man who took those men’s pictures—was soon zooming and jerking and swerving through the canyons. Sid snapped photos all the way down.
Julia Roberts saw the picture hanging in a gallery in New York and had a thought: she would buy it and send it off to Steven Soderbergh.
Roberts had been cast in a small role in the director’s 2001 remake of the original Ocean’s Eleven, and now in front of her hung a copy of that much-heralded portrait, taken by Sid Avery, of the original 1960 cast. Arranged around a pool table, the 12 men look suitably rakish, anchored by Dean, Frank, and Sammy.
Roberts’s gesture flipped a series of dominoes, and a few weeks later the 83-year-old photographer picked up his phone to find an executive from Warner Bros. on the other end, asking if he would consider coming to the set to snap the portrait of the new cast of Ocean’s Eleven. Sid, who had spent his twilight years making TV commercials with the likes of Shirley Jones and Ricardo Montalbán (“soft Corinthian leather”), declined. It had been too long, he said, since he’d done still photography.
His son, Ron, in the room with him at the time, told him to put the call on hold. He looked his father in the eye. “Tell them yes!” he pleaded.
Sid was nervous. But he trusted Ron. And, perhaps, his own belief that some of the old magic was still there. He got back on the phone. “O.K.,” he said.
With no props to work with this time around, Sid used a masking-tape outline of a pool table’s measurements to map out how to stage the new shot. Some cast members—Brad Pitt and George Clooney, in particular—were well aware of Sid’s famous portrait and pressed him for details. “The Rat Pack ran that  shoot,” Sid remarked at one point. “It was just a hell of a good time. That’s what they were doing—having a party.” (Clooney today has framed prints of both of Sid’s group portraits hanging behind his bar at home in L.A.) Recalls Elliott Gould, who played the vengeful tycoon Reuben Tishkoff in the remake, “We all felt privileged and somewhat moved … to be able to close the gap of generations with the man who had done it with the original cast.”
Anumber of actors had straggled in that day and missed Sid’s war stories. Among them was Scott Caan (actor James Caan’s son), who played mechanic Turk Malloy. He found the experience both exhilarating and ultimately frustrating—a side effect, he says, of being “completely confused to be in a room with all of these movie stars.” An accomplished photographer himself, with a coffee-table book to his credit, Caan had been influenced by Sid’s work since the actor started taking pictures, as a teenager. “He was totally an inspiration,” Caan says. Which only added to the regret he experienced when he realized he’d gone through the entire photo shoot without knowing it was Sid re-creating his own picture. “I put two and two together in the van on the way home,” he says wryly. “Wait a minute: that’s the guy who shot the original photo and this photo? I mean, the dude was such a legend. There’s no one even close to him.”
While the 1960 shoot had been a tad wild and uncontrolled, Sid would later recall, “when I got to Steven Soderbergh’s set, it was very warm, very friendly, but … there wasn’t that [same] esprit de corps.” Don Cheadle couldn’t get his scarf right and was fussing with it up until the moment of the first exposure; Carl Reiner wanted shtick and insisted on posing while holding up a pack of Rolaids. But there they were, the men of the new Ocean’s Eleven. And they were facing the largely unappreciated artist who had once created one of the definitive images of the iconic Rat Pack at its pinnacle. Everyone felt something special was happening. And then the old Hasselblad started clicking.
It would be the last photograph Sid Avery ever took.