With Emmy for camera work, Catonsville's Tim Suhrstedt is really clicking in Hollywood

A SHOOTING STAR

January 14, 1996|By Mike Klingaman

Tim Suhrstedt learned of his Emmy Award the same way he earned it: without fanfare.

Mr. Suhrstedt, a Hollywood cinematographer, was on the road, scouting out a desolate film location in North Carolina last September when he got the news from his 7-year-old daughter.

"Daddy! Daddy!" Tess squealed on the phone. "Guess what? You beat out that Dr. Quinn guy!"

And other top cameramen, to boot.

Mr. Suhrstedt, 47, won the Emmy for "Chicago Hope," the television drama he shot last season. Not that viewers noticed his award on the televised ceremony. Technical Emmys were presented backstage. Mandy Patinkin, star of "Chicago Hope," hoisted his award in triumph before a nationwide audience. Mr. Suhrstedt's name barely made a mention in the next day's newspaper.

When he got home to Los Angeles, Mr. Suhrstedt and his family held their own Emmy ceremony. He placed the keepsake on the fireplace mantel and addressed his wife and kids.

Talk about Kodak moments. Alas, Mr. Suhrstedt's acceptance speech is not preserved on celluloid. The man honored for his photographic excellence neglected to film the scene.

The Emmy is the first for Mr. Suhrstedt, an affable, soft-spoken director of photography whose credits run from Pert shampoo commercials to TV's "Picket Fences." He has filmed 20 motion pictures, including the recently completed "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday," starring Michelle Pfeiffer.

Not bad for a guy from Catonsville who didn't own a camera until he was 24.

"I never took pictures as a kid," Mr. Suhrstedt says. Piano lessons, yes. Photographs, no. The interest wasn't there. Instead, he shot baskets in the back yard of his parents' Colonial home, and played Little League baseball.

"This [career] really came out of left field for me," he says. "I never could have predicted it."

Mr. Suhrstedt attended Catonsville High School, played sports and soared academically. An honors student, he enjoyed films, but for all the teen reasons: i.e., a movie's lighting was "right" if the theater was dark enough to snuggle.

Gradually, he began seeing films in a new light. His favorite movie hangouts were the 5 West and the 7 East, two now-defunct Baltimore theaters that specialized in obscure and foreign films. Quirky, artistic movies intrigued him, as did any film with Alan Arkin, his favorite actor.

"I remember sitting in the Westview Cinema in 1966, laughing at [Arkin] in 'The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!' " says Mr. Suhrstedt. "He's a hero of mine."

Last year, Mr. Suhrstedt worked alongside Mr. Arkin's son, Adam, a star of "Chicago Hope." In November, the Arkins invited the Suhrstedts to dinner, where the cameraman hobnobbed with his idol. "I couldn't have imagined doing that 30 years ago," he says.

Others he has shot on film: a young Julia Roberts ("a sweet, enthusiastic girl who learned everyone's name on the set"), Macaulay Culkin ("a really good soul who was nice to my daughters") and Claire Danes ("there's an unnerving sort of wisdom about her"). Mr. Suhrstedt was director of photography for such movies as "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," "Mystic Pizza" and "Getting Even With Dad."

His handiwork -- lighting the sets, shooting scenes and developing film -- has impressed Tinseltown moguls.

"Tim's shooting style has a richness to it," says Marykay Powell, who produced the "Gillian" film. "There's no flat Technicolor look. He has the capacity to make even the scenery a character in his movies."

Witness the Emmy-winning "Chicago Hope" episode, in which Mr. Patinkin's Dr. Andrew Geiger discloses that his schizophrenic wife has drowned their infant son. One poignant scene has Dr. Geiger at home plate in empty Wrigley Field late at night. He's contemplating life while teeing up golf balls and whacking them off the ivy-covered walls.

It was the only scene of the series filmed in Chicago all season, and critics loved it.

Says Mr. Suhrstedt: "I enjoy making the film look not only good, but right for the story. When everything clicks, it's really very satisfying."

"Tim is brilliant -- a 'nine' going on '10,' " says Michael Pressman, a Hollywood producer/director who has worked with Mr. Suhrstedt on "Chicago Hope," and numerous other projects. "His cinematography is warm, soft, inviting and incredibly pleasant to the eye.

"Remember, Tim is still refining his style. His craft demands such knowledge that many cameramen don't blossom until their 40s. His best years are ahead."

Mr. Suhrstedt literally worked his way to the top: His first job was sweeping floors on the sets at Maryland Public Television in Owings Mills. It was a humble start for a Phi Beta Kappa from Lehigh University.

He'd gone to college to study engineering, switched to economics and become intrigued with English literature. One of his English professors, a film buff, happened to teach a course in cinema history. On a whim, Mr. Suhrstedt took the class, embraced "Citizen Kane," reveled in "Birth of A Nation."

"I was fascinated," he says.

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