Walter Lassally, Cinematographer Who Won Oscar for ‘Zorba,’ Dies at 90

Mr. Lassally worked with the director James Ivory on the period dramas that were the signature of Merchant Ivory Productions, like “The Wild Party” (1975), set in Hollywood of the 1920s, and “Heat and Dust” (1983), set partly in India of the 1920s. He shot comedies like “The Great Bank Hoax” (1978). He did the occasional television movie, including “The Man Upstairs,” a 1992 comic drama on CBS that starred Katharine Hepburn and Ryan O’Neal.

He could make even a mundane setting interesting, as Vincent Canby of The New York Times noted in his review of the 1969 film “3 Into 2 Won’t Go.”

“Walter Lassally,” Mr. Canby wrote, “who photographed some of Tony Richardson’s best films (‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’), must, I assume, receive some of the credit for transforming a suburban house into a locale as fascinating and mysterious and necessary to this film as Monument Valley used to be to John Ford.”


Irene Papas, left, and, in the background, Anthony Quinn (left) and Alan Bates in a scene from the 1964 film “Zorba the Greek.” Walter Lassally’s cinematography won an Academy Award.

Twentieth Century-Fox

Mr. Lassally was born on Dec. 18, 1926, in Berlin. His father was an engineer who sometimes used film as an adjunct to his work as he studied mechanical processes.

The family, Mr. Lassally said in an interview with the website Web of Stories, was not Jewish but had Jewish ancestors, making them unwelcome in their own country as the Nazis came to power. In 1939, just before the outbreak of war, they emigrated to England.

There was no immediate word on his survivors.

As a youngster Mr. Lassally worked at Riverside Studios in London as a “clapper boy,” holding the slate up before a scene. Riverside soon went bankrupt, but Mr. Lassally was on his way; in 1950 he was given the chance to shoot a fire-prevention documentary called “Every Five Minutes.”

He also began writing about moviemaking, becoming identified with the British documentary film movement known as Free Cinema.

His first features as cinematographer, “Another Sky,” set in North Africa, and “Passing Stranger,” a crime film set in a small British town, were both released in 1954.

“He started his career in documentaries and applied some of those techniques to his feature work in groundbreaking ways,” Stephen Pizzello, editor in chief and publisher of American Cinematographer magazine, said by email. “The mission of the Free Cinema movement was to produce realistic films about the working class, and its practitioners shot in authentic locations with relatively unknown actors and actresses; they were the guerrilla filmmakers of their day.”


Raquel Welch and James Coco in the 1975 Merchant Ivory film “The Wild Party,” set in 1920s Hollywood. Mr. Lassally was a frequent cinematographer for Merchant Ivory movies.

Merchant Ivory Productions/American International Pictures

In 1961 Mr. Richardson, who died in 1991, asked Mr. Lassally to shoot “A Taste of Honey,” a drama about a pregnant teenager, which Mr. Pizzello said was the first major British feature shot entirely on location. The next year the two made “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” about a boy at an English reform school.

In 1963 came “Tom Jones,” a romantic romp, based on the Henry Fielding novel, set in the 18th century. It had a particularly memorable scene involving a stag hunt, which included countless hounds running alongside riders on galloping horses. Mr. Lassally found a thrilling way to render the scene, mixing conventional images with shots taken from a helicopter and a camera mounted so low on a truck that it could look up at the riders’ faces.

“It’s so cleverly intercut that sometimes you think you’re running along the ground, and then suddenly you’re jumping over the bushes and rising into the air,” Mr. Lassally said. “So that was a very effective technique, and it’s caused a lot of comment after. People always ask me, ‘How did you do that?’ ”