Like many a success story, it all started as a joke.
Dave Golding, a major Hollywood publicist, asked neophyte photographer Phil Stern to document the filming of “Guys and Dolls.” As a favor to his father, who worked on The Forward, Golding asked Stern to photograph Marlon Brando reading a copy of the Yiddish-language paper.
What began as a lark became a three-decade obsession for Stern, who always kept a copy of the newspaper handy and ready for any opportunity to stage a shot of an unlikely celebrity reader. A batch from The Forward series is currently on display at the Workman’s Circle.
“That [group of photos] was a departure,” says Stern, 79, who started out as a combat photog in World War II. “My work gave me access to these people. They are all the most improbable pairings: Spencer Tracy…Alfred Hitchcock reading the Daily Forward. They are all…choreographed from an evil-minded photographer.”
Over the years, Jack Lemmon, Jimmy Stewart, Jean Simmons and James Garner all followed suit. Stern was often surprised at the willingness of many stars to pose with the paper.
“People like Sinatra, who normally would not do it…he was delighted; he jumped at the opportunity,” he said.
Hanging out on the sets of movies, Stern frequently befriended the stars he stalked with his 35mm. He playfully referred to Kirk Douglas as “Kirkala” and remembers a time, on the Yugoslav location for “The Light at the Edge of the World,” when he won over star Yul Brynner with a knapsack filled with mussels.
“I love mussels, and so did he,” says Stern. “I went to a market and brought back a knapsack [filled with] mussels, and [Brynner] had a big trailer with a kitchen in it…. He cooked up mussels with the wine sauce and the dip [etc.], all made from scratch. It was a gourmet tour de force.”
These days, Stern spends most of his time snapping pictures of his grandchildren. He finds today’s entertainment culture alien to his sensibilities, and although he recognizes and admires talents such as Jerry Seinfeld and Robert De Niro, he does not lament missing his chance to photograph them. Instead, says Stern, “I’m recycling my youth,” referring to the archives of his past photography he is in the process of cataloging. Since retreating from Hollywood’s front lines in 1983, Stern and his vintage material have been in hot demand, particularly images he took of Hollywood martyrs Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.
Says Stern, “I get queried almost every day.”
Proof positive (or, in his case, negative) appears in a recent New Yorker, which featured one of his Marilyns. The current Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair also boasts a Stern classic — Sammy Davis Jr. and Kim Novak.
Unlike Dean and Brando, Stern never got to know the former Norma Jean Baker, but is proud of his extensive professional relationship with the legendary sex symbol. “I don’t say that in the sense of arrogance in any way; I have a track record…magazine covers, posters.”
Phil Stern will appear at The Workmen’s Circle on Friday, April 23, at 7:30 p.m. Also at the event, the film, “The Jewish Daily Forward: From Immigrants to Americans,” will be screened. Call (310) 552-2007 — Michael Aushenker, Community Editor