Grips are the backbone of the film industry, and today, we’d like you to meet one of the best — and that’s just the first act of his story. The second act began after a life-altering accident on the set left Jim unable to work, and it was then, forced to come to terms with who he is at heart, he discovered his greatest ability of all.
Jim Udel is the third generation of a family of portrait photographers; his grandfather’s first shop, Udel Brothers Studio, opened in Baltimore in 1910. The love of imagery, and especially portraiture, has been a deep part of the family ever since.
Jim recounts, “This was back in the day when they were using 8” x 10” view cameras with plate negatives — glass negatives that were coated with emulsion. And my granddad, well, he only had two holders, meaning he could only do four shots at a time. When he was doing sittings, he would have to run downstairs to the darkroom, after taking four shots, then change the plates out, then run back upstairs. Then do it again. And again. And again. Every four exposures!”
Clearly, the ability to capture the essence of an individual on film or in words is in his blood — but more on that in a moment.
Jim’s first foray in the industry was assisting his father, also a prominent photographer, carrying camera and lighting gear.
At the age of 17, Jim struck out on his own, essentially running away from home to move to New York City. He did everything from loading trucks at Feature Systems, to working as a production assistant on Miami Vice, to being the still-man on over fifty commercials.
It was there Jim met his wife, Maryann, who he credits for pretty much everything good in his life since their chance encounter some 28 years ago.
It’s a memory Jim recounts with boyish enthusiasm. “I’m walking down Seventh Avenue — I’m working on Tattinger’s in New York City at the time — and I see a woman walking down the street on Seventh Ave. near 23rd Street. She’s blonde, she’s tall, she’s absolutely beautiful, and she’s talking to herself,” Jim laughs.
“She’s absolutely stunning. I was taken with her. It was like a lightning bolt, just like the thing with Michael in Godfather II. My jaw must have been open and she looked up at me and smiled, stopped talking to herself, then was embarrassed and sort of covered her face with her … script. (She was an actress, practicing on her way to an audition.) I said, “Don’t be embarrassed, talking to yourself is a sign of genius, I know because I do it all the time.” Jim pauses, in awe. “I could never write anything that charming. It was a gift. Our first date was two days later, I took her on a picnic in Washington Square Park.”
Three years later they were married, then three years after that came their son, Douglas Sean Udel — named after Sean Connery himself. “When I met Mr. Connery, my hero, I showed him a picture of my son and told him I wanted to name him Sean Connery Udel, but my wife wouldn’t let me. Mr Connery said,” Jim goes into imitation Connery, “Aw, a wise woman.”
But the Connery saga doesn’t end there. Jim explains, “A year later I end up knowing Francesco Quinn because I knew Tony Quinn from having photographed him when I did the General Motors Playwrights Theater. Quinn sort of adopted me as his part-time photographer. I got to photograph his son and Jason Connery, son of Sean Connery, doing this play together and I did some beautiful photographs. I sent Mr. Connery a beautifully framed photograph of his son — and he loves his son, it’s his only son. I come home one day and the light on my answering machine is blinking, and it’s him.” Jim again does a perfect Connery. “‘Hello, this is Sean Connery, I’m calling to speak to Jim Udel, I’d like to thank him for the marvelous photograph that he did of my son, Jason. I just want to say how wonderful it is that you sent it so carefully.’ I still have that recording, of course.”
Jim, having risen as far as he could go without a union card, was determined to grab that holy grail, and so after hearing the advice from his NY pals again and again — “Go to LA! Take a chance!” — the two of them and their newborn son moved to Hollywood. It took a year of Roger Corman films and endless productions, but eventually Jim did get his IA card and became an officially sanctioned Grip.
Over the course of the next twenty years, Jim worked on some of the most iconic films and TV shows of a generation. However, his passion for photography continued to grow, so throughout all the shoots, Jim would beseech any and every actor to sit for a portrait. Today, his collection is breathtaking.
“About 99% of the time, I’d get a yes,” Jim recounts. “It’s because of the way I approach people. I’m very careful, I always look, I always study them first, so that if they’re not my favorite actor, I make them my favorite actor. I look up their history, I look up how they started, I form an approach so that I’m not just a jughead dope with a camera who walks up to them and says, ‘Hey, can I take your picture, Mr. Stallone?’”
Jim loves the spontaneity and strategy of it all. ”I was doing Being John Malkovich, and I was getting along great with Malk. I got to talk to him and show him my work and he really liked it. I told him that I’d seen him do Death of a Salesman on Broadway. I told him, I’d really like to do a portrait of him before the movie was over. Now, they’d put a bodyguard with Malkovich because he’s a very private person and he works in character a lot, so he walks around in character between takes.”
Jim continues, “So we’re on the Queen Mary and they’d put a Second Second Assistant Director (22AD) to guard his dressing room, which was in a series of staterooms in one of the decks below. I went by where I knew his stateroom was and I saw the bodyguard, the 22AD with the big radio on. So I went around the corner about 30 feet away where she couldn’t hear me, and I went on the channel, which is number one, that the production people speak on, and I called her away on a fake mission to another part of the boat.” It was on.
“At that point,” Jim says pointing to his watch, “I figure I’ve got about 10 minutes before she gets to the poop deck and they tell her we didn’t call you, somebody’s playing a joke on you. So I rap on the door”… Jim makes a tapping sound …”And Malk lets me in, I say, ‘Hey John, listen man, I, I, I don’t want to impose, if it’s not a good time now, just tell me and I’ll piss off, but I got my camera, if you got a minute.’ And what I’d already done, before I even called her away, is set up a chair outside on the deck, a director’s chair, in the light that I wanted with a frame of 250 diffusion, pre-lighting him. So that just in case he said yes, I’d have a chance to do it.” Jim smiles impishly, ”He said yes. He comes out of his room, and he looks to the left, and he sees the empty chair, and he looked at me, and he knew that I was smart enough to get rid of the bodyguard. And he didn’t know how I’d done it, but he gave me a nod, like, attaboy, you did it.” Jim laughs. “It’s one of the best pictures I ever took.”
It was also about to be one of the worst times in his life. With his career as a grip in full swing, working on the set of Being John Malkovich, fate again stepped in and completely redirected Jim’s life. It was 1997, and he suffered his first major injury. A cracked T8 vertebrae. Months of hobbling.
The inactivity was driving Jim crazy. Then one of his friends suggested that he visit the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills. Jim recounts, “It was a veritable who’s who of the movies that I loved, technically-wise. The behind the scenes people, the below the line folks, the grips, the gaffers, the prop guys, the cinematographers, the hair and makeup guys, they all lived out there.”
It was then that Jim got his idea for his recently published book.
After about a year of recovery, Jim went back to work. Soon he was back on major features, The Rockford Files, Dante’s Peak, Breakdown, Money Talks, Rush Hour, My Favorite Martian, Storm of the Century, Inherit the Wind, and tons of other productions. All the while though, Jim was becoming more committed to photography.
After a second serious injury on the set of Lemony Snickets, Jim’s life took another turn. “I tried to work again, but it was never the same.”
Jim found “his home” as a Call Steward for the Union he loved, which he continues to do today after more than 9 years.
He began writing a critically-praised column for Below the Line on old Hollywood titled Footnotes, and soon, Jim landed a book deal with McFarland Publishing, who has now released his evocative, beautifully written The Film Crew of Hollywood: Profiles of Grips, Cinematographers, Designers, a Gaffer, a Stuntman and a Makeup Artist. His second book, Stuntman’s Stories from Tinseltown, is currently in the works. And Jim is already thinking about his third.
“I want to do a serious actor book, the character actor book. A book of interviews with great actors — and I don’t want to call them character actors. With actors nobody knows anything about and find out what it was in their life that enabled them to open this wonderful, communicative power of acting.”
We at First Entertainment are proud to have helped Jim from his earliest days in LA. Jim recounts, “After my injuries, First Entertainment Credit Union helped us with a debt consolidation loan that not only helped keep the house that we had purchased in the black but it allowed us to keep our son in school. There’s a specific consistency to the quality of the people at First Entertainment that’s remarkable — you can’t really say that about most places you go, much less a bank.” Jim smiles, “They’ve truly been the unsung twelfth player on the field of Tinseltown.”
At this point, with Jim having conducted so many interesting, historically important Hollywood profiles, we had to ask him, how would you like to be remembered when somebody writes your profile?
Jim pauses only for a moment before answering. “I think as a guy that appreciated the work that came before me and tried to emulate it as best I could.”
We love that we were able to help; Jim’s contribution to the history of film is significant and it’s not just us who think so. The Motion Picture & Television Academy is placing his interviews from The Film Crew of Hollywood in their permanent collection. His book is wonderful — we highly recommend it and here’s a link to pick up a copy:
The Film Crew of Hollywood on Amazon: http://goo.gl/tLXYuq