Born in 1933 and raised in Los Angeles, Gil Haimson grew up alongside the golden age of film and television. As a cameraman he flew around the world with Bob Hope on a USO tour and while in the Army he performed variety shows alongside Raymond Burr. Henry Fonda once gave him a jar of honey from his private bee hive and he has shaken hands with both John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. Ronald Regan himself once handed Gil a box of chocolates as a thank you for buying him and Nancy ice cream cones. At eighty years of age Gil has truly lived an incredible life and he was kind enough to sit down with me and tell me a few stories…
The first time Gil brought his hand to his heart during our conversation was when he talked about his love of musicals. His eyes light up and he fondly recalled some of his first theater experiences while attending Venice High. He played the villainous Jonathon in Arsenic and Old Lace and the comedic Percy Kilbride in George Washington Slept Here. Playing these characters “to the hilt” as Gil described was a lot of fun and there was no doubt what he wanted to study in College.
In October of 1955, while studying Theater Arts at LA City and State College, Gil was drafted into the Army. He had overlooked registering himself as a student and was therefore drafted. Being that Gil has a way of making the most of every situation he played volleyball and softball for the Army and put in to spend three months in New York for a portion of his active duty so he could see as many Broadway musicals as possible. In New York, Gil saw a show at least three nights a week after classes in “troop information and education” at Fort Slocum. After class he would run to catch the ferry, take the train to Grand Central Station and was given a dinner ticket at the USO as well as a ticket for a Broadway show. “I was in heaven,” he said. Gil seems to have been made for the stage himself with his rich, smooth voice and natural charisma. He has a class about him belonging to another time; a sense of humor and charm reminiscent of a true silver screen leading man.
– Gil at top right with some of his college theater friends.
Although Gil did play a few small roles, he didn’t end up in front of the camera, but rather directly behind it. He worked as a cameraman in Hollywood for over fifty years filming everything from the original Batman series to Bob Hope’s 1971 overseas Christmas tour during Vietnam. While in the Army Gil was also contacted by Raymond Burr to audition troops for a variety show. The show consisted of pies in the face, slap stick comedy bits and musical numbers; things Burr never got to do as an actor because he was always cast in more serious, dramatic roles. Gil, Burr and a troupe of thirteen soldiers performed over one hundred shows at military bases up and down the west coast. Their successful run was only cut short when Burr got the call that he had been given the part of Perry Mason.
With no more shows to perform Gil went back to playing volleyball and to his job as a Guided Missile Specialist. He spent his days in an under-ground bunker tracking unidentified aircrafts and monitoring the sixteen guided missile batteries in and around the Los Angeles area. Each site had Nike guided missiles in underground silos, ready to strike down unknown aircrafts. Quite an exciting job and an important part of California’s military history.
After finishing up his Army career, Gil found himself teaching ballroom dancing at the Veloz and Yolanda dancing school in Beverly Hills where he spent his days and nights teaching the older women of Beverly Hills how to dance.
Eventually Gil focused on his love of filmmaking and was hired by an independent filmmaker named Bruce Herschensohn, a man he speaks fondly of and learned a lot from. Documentary films were Gil’s passion at the time and his first assignment was to help edit footage for a film advertising Airstream trailers. In 1959, Wally Byam, maker of the Airstream, sent a group of thirty-six American families on a caravan from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt in their Airstream trailers. Gil’s job was to edit all of the footage taken during their trip into a forty-five minute documentary. After hours of labor the film was shown to Mr. Byam and the first thing he exclaimed was, “where are all my trailers?!” Gil was so captivated with the breathtaking scenery that he left out shots of the trailers. He had to go back and re-cut the entire thing. “It hurt me to take out all of that gorgeous scenery,” Gil said “but you have to give the client what they want.” He learned a big lesson that day. Working on this film was a great entryway into the world of documentary filmmaking which Gil lived and breathed for the next four years.
– Photo credit: twm1340 at Flickr
Much as it is today, getting hired at the major studios in Los Angeles is not an easy thing. Fortunately, Gil always had consistent work outside the studios when one day he got a call from Sol Halprin, head of the camera department at Twentieth Century Fox. “Is this Gil Haimson?” Sol asked. “Yes, it is sir.” “Would you be interested in working at 20th, Gil?” “I’d love to work at 20th, sir!” “Well, come over and see me next week.” A few weeks later Gil had full-time work as a camera assistant at Twentieth Century Fox and for the next four years he worked on television series such as Batman, Time Tunnel, Voyage to The Bottom of The Sea and countless other shows. Generally working twelve-hour days due to the time-consuming special effects, Gil had very little social life or time to go see his musicals but he said, with no trace of regret, those were “very exciting days.”
After about four years, work at Fox started to dry up. It was a slow time but Gil needed to find work so he made the tough decision to leave the studio. He went onto work at MGM, Paramount, CBS, Disney and Universal when one day fellow cameraman, Allen Stensvold asked him if he would like to go on tour with Bob Hope to Vietnam to film the Bob Hope Show. “We went around the world in sixteen days,” Gil said “to Guam, Madrid, Guantanamo, Saigon (which is now called Ho Chi Minh City) and Da Nang in Vietnam. We weren’t allowed to stay the night in Da Nang because troops were in battle a mile away from where we were putting on the show!” Bob was a great guy, Gil said and it really moved him to see how grateful the men were for the show and how happy it made them. Many of them were wounded and wheeled out on gurneys by the nurses to see the show. A crew of eighty people was flown by the Air Force to perform a one and a half hour show at each location; there were twelve beautiful girls that danced and sang, baseball pitcher Vida Blue, the astronaut Alan Shepard from the Apollo 14 mission and Les Brown and his Band of Renown. Despite the long hours and intense work schedule, I was beginning to sense that Gil said yes to just about everything. “Was there anything you said no to?” I asked him. “I didn’t know the word,” he said with a smile.
– Some of Gil’s memorabilia from The Bob Hope Show, Christmas 1971.
The second time Gil brought his hand to his heart was to tell me about filming the night Robert Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles. His voice lowered, his head hung a little and his eyes seemed to bow down in remembrance of a man that he, and much of the country, had come to admire and respect.
In the spring of 1968 Gil spent two months traveling with Kennedy as a cameraman filming a documentary for NBC on Kennedy’s run for the presidency. Gil and the crew traveled with Kennedy, sharing late night bus rides, making whistle stops at small towns and taking early morning flights. Due to the close travel arrangements between the crew and Kennedy’s entourage, Gil experienced firsthand Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s kindness and down to earth manner. He recounted a moment, while on a chartered flight, when he went to bring his dinner tray back to the stewardesses and Ethel stopped him and insisted on bringing it back for him. “She was a delightful woman,” Gil said. She was friendly and personable with everyone as was Kennedy himself. Kennedy often came back to where the media team was seated to shake hands, share a few stories and tell them what a great job they were doing. “They were just lovely, lovely people,” Gil said.
– Photo credit: Minnesota Historical Society
While filming, Gil remembers the way Kennedy always insisted on riding in a convertible through the streets, crowded with fans and supporters. Despite what happened to his own brother it was very important to Kennedy that he be able to “touch the people” as he drove by. “He was that kind of man,” Gil said “and he would have made an incredible president,” pausing as if to take a moment of silence, “It would have been a different world.” The many moments the crew shared with the Kennedy’s, and their gestures of kindness, touched Gil deeply making it all the more painful to be there on that fateful night.
It was just after midnight on June 5th 1968 at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Kennedy was finishing up his victory speech for the California primaries; the celebratory energy in the room was high. Gil and the film crew had gone ahead of Kennedy in order to film him entering a room full of volunteers he intended to thank and give a speech to. Before the crew could get down the stairs shots rang out. Gil and the crew ran back up the stairs to see a panicked mob scrambling out of the back pantry area where Kennedy had been shot. As the room cleared they saw Kennedy lying on the ground covered in blood. Ethel, who was pregnant with their eleventh child at the time, was down on her hands and knees above him. “I couldn’t film it Gil said,” in a quiet voice. “I couldn’t film it.” “Were you expected to?” I asked “Oh yes, but I couldn’t do it.” Gil said he collapsed at that moment and told himself “never again, no more documentaries.” The closeness of the last few months ending with such a traumatic event was heartbreaking. “It really affected me deeply,” he said.
Gil took some time off work after that. One day, in the steam room at the gym he met a man who asked him if he’d ever been to Europe. No, Gil said but a month later he had sold his car, put all his belongings in storage and set off for what would be an eleven month trip across Europe, visiting twenty-three countries in a Volkswagen Beetle he purchased for $1,325 at the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg Germany. It was a much needed and well deserved adventure… and perhaps a story for another blog post.
The third time Gil brought his hand to his heart was when he told me about meeting his wife Dulce. At sixty-five Gil had never been married and figured at his age it probably wouldn’t happen but just like something out of a Hollywood romance, it did, and he said he knew immediately that she was the one. Like Gil, Dulce loves musicals also. The two of them have fallen in love with the latest film adaptation of Les Misérables with Hugh Jackman and Ann Hathaway. “It’s beautiful.” Gil says to me, “It’s a magnificent story, and we’ve seen it three times in the theater!” What’s magnificent to me is Gil and Dulce’s own story and being reminded that love has a way of finding us in its own perfect time.
I don’t know anyone who has lived a more full and exciting life as Gil Haimson. At eighty years of age he has more energy and enthusiasm for life than anyone I know. Just the other night he invited me to a private screening at the Fox lot to see the latest Ben Stiller movie. Pulling into the parking garage, Gil parked in a reserved spot for an actor on the TV show Bones; something I’d never have the nerve to do. Flashing back on all of Gil’s stories I realized that somehow, regardless of how small, Gil has a way of bringing a sense of adventure to everything he does and that night I was happy to be along for the ride.
To my dismay Gil didn’t have as many pictures of his adventures as I had hoped but it’s clear that Gil was much too busy living life than to worry about preserving it all. I think my generation has a harder time with this. Many of us spend a lot of time snapping photos of everything from a recent purchase to our morning breakfast. We have so many outlets to share every second of our lives but how much does that distract us from actually living it? For this I envy Gil and I am inspired to spend more time living my own adventure for all its worth.
– Gil at his 50th Surprise Birthday Party.