Harry Langdon, Jr. Interview: Legendary Photographer and Son of Silent Film Star Captures Hollywood's Iconic Faces
Written by Melissa Parker, Posted in Interviews Photographers
Image attributed to Harry Langdon, Jr.
In a career that has spanned over 40 years in Hollywood, staying fresh in a very competitive field is what keeps Harry Langdon, Jr. among the top commercial and glamour photographers in the world. He always strives to capture the crisp digital images that portray his clients at their very best.
Langdon’s client list includes (or has included): Mary Tyler Moore, Richard Burton, Diana Ross, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jane Fonda, Henry Fonda, Naomi Judd, Pat Boone, Farrah Fawcett, Neil Diamond, Andy Williams, Brian Wilson, Joan Rivers, Kirk Douglas, Sophia Loren, Vanessa Williams, Boy George, Marie Osmond, Joey Heatherton, Joan Collins, Cher, Steve Martin, Petula Clark, Tom Jones, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Janet Jackson. Others are not necessarily well-known celebrities, but are the “movers and shakers” of Hollywood such as business people, doctors, authors and behind-the-scenes music executives.
"Sinatra had some dark people that were affiliated with him. On photo sessions, he would have some security guards always there and interestingly enough, on a few of the sessions, the guards were watching me to see if I’d get out of hand (laughs). But sometimes he’d have four security guards, and some were watching my crew behind me. Sinatra would get threats and not everybody liked him, but his photo sessions used to pay $25,000 to $50,000. He saw to it that they only lasted, with him in the picture, for about five minutes. That’s a lot of money for five minutes work."
The famed photographer is the only child of the late vaudeville and silent screen comedian, Harry Langdon. Upon the actor's death in 1944, the New York Times wrote, “His whole appeal was a consummate ability to look inexpressibly forlorn when confronted with manifold misfortunes – usually of the domestic type. He was what was known as ‘deadpan’ – the feeble smile and owlish blink which had become his stock-in-trade caught on in a big way, and he skyrocketed to fame and fortune.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Harry, thanks for taking the time today to talk about your fascinating career. A couple of months ago, I saw your name credited on a Frank Sinatra photo that was taken in 1990 and used for a current article entitled, “Frank Sinatra’s Widow Slams Mia Farrow’s Paternity Hints About Son Ronan.” I believe Mia was trying to say that her son’s father was Frank Sinatra and not Woody Allen.
Harry Langdon, Jr.: What the media writes about Mia is kind of sad. They should just let history rest. They do that also with John F. Kennedy and his affairs. Sinatra, at one time, was one of my favorite clients. He was full of intrigue and drama and was an angry guy, I guess you could say. He just didn’t like people pushing him around.
Sinatra had some dark people that were affiliated with him. On photo sessions, he would have some security guards always there and interestingly enough, on a few of the sessions, the guards were watching me to see if I’d get out of hand (laughs). But sometimes he’d have four security guards, and some were watching my crew behind me. Sinatra would get threats and not everybody liked him, but his photo sessions used to pay $25,000 to $50,000. He saw to it that they only lasted, with him in the picture, for about five minutes. That’s a lot of money for five minutes work.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You must have some interesting stories to tell. What was your first experience like with a celebrity client?
Harry Langdon, Jr.: The story of my life is that I just put one foot in front of the other and let it take its course. The first big celebrity was an actress named Jean Seberg who passed away in 1979. She was brought in by Columbia Pictures. It was a big session. At that time, I was only photographing aspiring models and actors. Somebody said, “You should go to Harry Langdon and use him for Jean.” She came to the door dressed very casual, and I thought she was one of the crew, so I addressed her as if she was one of the worker people. Jean said, “No. I’m your subject.” We got along quite well.
In the middle of the photo session, I had a quick decision to make. Someone called in and said that Jean’s boyfriend had overdosed on drugs and crashed into a parked car. They came to me about this as if I was the director even though I was this humble photographer just getting my career going. They assumed I’d know the best answer to this predicament because they asked, “Do you want us to tell her about the accident?” Now this is in the middle of the session.
The people in the industry always say, “The show must go on.” But I thought, “If I don’t tell her and she finds out later, she’d really hold that against me.” I went up to her and told her about it, and then asked, “What do you want to do? Do you want to call off the shoot?” Jean kind of braced herself up like a real professional and said, “No. Let’s go on with the shoot because it’s important for my career.”
It’s interesting that a lot of women, when some event happens in their lives, pull themselves up very quickly and do better than they probably normally would have done. There’s more of a passion in their eyes. It’s quite exciting. I have found that some of the best sessions I’ve done was when I quickly make friends with a client, and they are passionately talking about something in their careers, love life, dogs, skiing or something. From those conversations, they get a spark in their eyes that wouldn’t be there if they just sat there, and I told them to smile.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are the relationships you form during photo sessions similar to hairdressers where clients actually confide in you?
Harry Langdon, Jr.: Yeah. They almost have to be because my clients may come in with a defect. They might have a weakness in their faces or maybe they are ill or on their period. They have to tell me this so that I know how to make up for it because that can effect their expressions a great deal. I’ve photographed Jane Fonda quite a few times and used to do all of the exercise video shoots for the covers of her books. She’d have her good days and bad days.
Everybody thinks that Jane never has a bad day, but at that time, she was splitting up with the state senator, Tom Hayden. The news came out the day of the shoot. When she came in, her look was of a mixture of defeat and embarrassment, and she had to tell me that she wasn’t herself that day. Jane said, “You’ve got to tell me who I am again.”
I said, “You’re a woman that women around the world look up to for advice and confidence. You’re a consummate actress.” I had to brace her back up again because she was so shaken the split came out in the news. So I become really fast friends with them and not just during the shoot. The relationship actually goes on for the rest oft their lives. Men and women call me to see how I’m doing or just to talk.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is the secret to getting a good photo with the “look” you want?
Harry Langdon, Jr.: Part of the secret, especially for a glamorous, sexy picture is that when they are looking at the camera, they are really looking at me behind the camera because I talk a lot. It’s almost as if they are sitting with me across a table during a nice lunch or dinner. The audience or whomever looks at those pictures will feel as though they are there with us enjoying the food or cocktails. It’s kind of a neat position I’m in. I’m sure many photographers go through this.
Annie Leibovitz just goes for the jugular, and she gets some great positions and poses, but I usually photograph expressions. The eyes are the reflections of the soul and spirit, and that’s usually what I’m going for. Some people, Melissa, have a black soul meaning there is nothing going on there. Quite often it may be a young person who has not had many life experiences, so I artificially induce that look I want with music or some form of theatrics to get the expressions. I talk about Justin Bieber or their favorite rock stars to get them fired up.
Frank Sinatra was so jaded. What could you talk to Sinatra about to get him excited? Well, this story did the trick. I had a photo session with him at the Waldorf Astoria with Sammy Davis and Liza Minnelli. I just coincidentally happened to get a cab where the guy was a huge Sinatra fan. All of these still photos of Sinatra were posted in the cab, and the driver even had Sinatra music on the radio. I said to the driver, “I’m going to photograph Sinatra in about two hours.” The guy just flipped out!
When Sinatra came out for his shoot, I told him about the cab driver. He was so stoked over that, he said to his publicist, “Write that down. That’s just fabulous publicity!” It really moved him. Joan Collins is usually very blasé. Quite often when she comes in, she is playing a role. She was on Dynasty at the time and literally changed during the shoot into her character. Sometimes the shoot is a performance for those actors in a continuous role on television.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe you once turned down a shooting session request from Larry Flynt.
Harry Langdon, Jr.: I’ve matured a lot. That must’ve been about 20 years ago.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There are reasons that you refuse to shoot someone?
Harry Langdon, Jr.: Well, if I don’t like their “act” or something that they are doing. For instance, I have a problem photographing rap artists because they’re angry, unhappy and kind of sullen. I do photograph a lot of rappers, but I have to say that I’m not really adept at it. When I had to photograph P. Diddy (as he was known then), he just had this aura of rebelliousness about him. I have to shift my approach away from romance and camaraderie to one of being almost the “enemy” behind the camera, a symbol of what some of these guys are unhappy with and hate.
Those sessions are a little more difficult for me. But I’m 78 years old now. I’d get a kick out of it only because there’s a side to me that wants to feel like I can delve into an area of “darkness” and be able to be confident enough spiritually where I can tackle it and carry out the assignment whatever it may be. The bigger and harder the jobs are now, the more I enjoy it. A photographer somewhere has to do the job. Someone has to do it. There have been some sessions I’ve turned down, but I really regret it now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I would think George Clooney is fairly calm and collected during photo sessions.
Harry Langdon, Jr.: I did one of his most important sessions when he was on ER. Photo shoots for him was a necessary assignment as part of his publicity machine. I happened to be the chosen photographer because I’d been photographing his aunt Rosemary. She gave him my name. Quite often, good-looking people are just that, meaning they’ve never had experiences that give them a texture, so to speak, something to grab onto as a photographer.
George is a good-looking guy and photographs at all the right angles. Everything is always perfect. It’s really easy. It was more challenging to get something more interesting on him other than the good looking, preppie guy, so I remembered these old movies with Cary Grant and Tyrone Power. What I do is sort of mentally superimpose one of those actors from yesteryear over this new person. I guess George was about 27 or 28 at the time. I tried to turn him into a Tyrone Power kind of guy, a kind of slick, greasy gigolo. I get a kick out of gigolos. I did that on a very successful portion of the shoot right at the end. He had a white suit on.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I saw those photos. Loved the black and white.
Harry Langdon, Jr.: Yes. He wasn’t happy about it, but we greased his hair back. I had been photographing Julio Iglesias who is another consummate gigolo guy. Julio said, “My eyes look better when you go up on the ladder and shoot down on me.” So that’s what I did with George. It only lasted for five minutes, and he thought we were wasting time. We ended the session right after that.
By the way, George didn’t like the pictures at first. He liked all the ones showing him as the typical leading man in the beginning of the session. After eight or ten years went by, all of a sudden, George “became” that guy in the pictures. He became more of the suave, James Bond kind of guy that he is now … a dashing, older guy that gets all the women.
Kelly Rutherford was this young up and coming star in a soap opera at the time, and I got some shots on her that were really stunning because I saw the potential in her being like a Rita Hayworth. I superimposed Rita over Kelly on a portion of the shoot, and it came out really wonderfully. She’s a good looking woman that didn’t have a lot of exciting things going on at that time that would’ve given me a handle on how to grab a great shot of her. During the shoot, she kept grabbing a cigarette and smoking, and Rita used to do that. I got a great shot of her with a cigarette, but I have to keep that buried because I’d get letters now about “smoking pictures.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever photographed Miley Cyrus?
Harry Langdon, Jr.: No, I haven’t. I would get a kick out of that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Harry, let’s talk about your namesake and father, silent film star Harry Langdon. You were ten years old when he passed away?
Harry Langdon, Jr.: Yeah. I was born into a theatrical family, and from the time I was aware of what was going on, there were actors around, nice homes, nice cars and movie people. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Red Skelton, Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel were my dad’s friends and were always around the house. I thought that was just the way life was for everyone. At about five, I just thought life was very luxurious with maids and a great experience for a kid. The only think that was missing, Melissa, was that I didn’t have a father.
My dad was on the road or on soundstages all the time, so I had to start creating my own hobbies which became my friends. My hobbies were painting, drawing and building model cars and airplanes. One day my dad got sick. We had a beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills at that time. As a kid, I wasn’t ever around illness like that, so to see your father disabled like that … it was a real tragedy. But at ten, you just think, “Oh no, my father is gone.” I was so used to him being absent that when my mother told me he was gone, my reply was, “Again?”
My dad didn’t leave us with any money comparatively, so my mother had to go to work, and we had to leave that big house. I’d never experienced anything like that. She told me I had to get a paper route. As a young child, I was hit with reality. I never had any responsibilities. I was just this spoiled brat who had nannies all his life. All of a sudden, I had to “make” something of myself and become somebody. I found that I had better do something or live in my father’s shadow, and you can only go on being a famous actor’s son for so long before you have to make something of yourself. I thought that my father’s name was going to open up doors all over the place. It did a little bit, but really in this industry, to be a “son of,” people assume you’re going to be a wimp and you won’t turn out to be anybody. I’ve had to prove them wrong.
My mother thought I was a social retard because I was lacking confidence. She wasn’t sure what my sexual proclivities were because I didn’t have any girlfriends. I didn’t even think about girls. At thirteen, all I could think of was the next hobby assignment I’d give myself. My mom thought I needed to get oriented somehow or another in some kind of a manly thing, so she enrolled me in Arthur Murray Dance Studios to meet real women (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): (laughs) And you had no experience with girls?
Harry Langdon, Jr.: No. My mother paid a lot of money for those dance lessons and here I was having to hold onto a female person so we could dance. It was a huge change in my life. I had to get social and get rid of the model cars and airplanes because I was around real women who would judge me on my accomplishments and confidence.
I dropped out of school when I was 15 because I had to go to work as a carpenter. My mother let me go to continuation school to get my diploma. I was a journeyman carpenter, but I started teaching dancing and became a gold medal champion dancer. I had lots of girlfriends and nice cars. One girlfriend would say, “I need my picture made.” I slowly progressed over to professional photographer that started out as a hobby. As soon as you get paid as a photographer, you don’t have to have a license or anything. You just have to have the audacity to charge money (laughs).
I got my first studio when I was about 27 years old. I gave up the dancing, but salsa clubs were the places to go at night, and I started finding myself drinking a lot of Cuban drinks. It was too much drinking, so I had to stop that. Now I’m in my 10th studio, and I have a wonderful client list. I still get many calls for shooting sessions, although my main income is from the royalties I derive from selling pictures all over the world.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about your father.
Harry Langdon, Jr.: I’m not sure how many times dad was married, although I have gotten the “three times” sum in most of the biographies I’ve seen. He was a consummate entertainer that came from the Vaudeville School, and he played banjo, did pantomime, danced tap, played piano and drew cartoon characters, among other things. His family was Salvation Army soldiers, and even though he ran away from home at 15, he still made an effort to instill in his work the statement, “The poor and downtrodden shall inherit the earth.”
When dad was offered movies by film producer Sol Lesser, he thought that medium was only a fad and decided to stay in Vaudeville Theater where he was making so much money. During this time in the “Roaring Twenties,” Charlie Chaplin was the big guy in silent movies and was with a film company owned by Max Sennett. But in about 1922, Chaplin went on to do his own thing, and Sennett offered Harry Langdon a lot of money to replace the void left by “the tramp.” That team went on with 50 very successful films until my dad also decided to go out on his own in 1927 to produce some feature length films. They were very successful, but in 1929 the Stock Market crashed and devastated many, and my dad was one of them, and he and his wife Rose divorced.
My dad was in limbo until he met my mom in 1933 and signed on to do a “talkie” with Al Jolson. Up until that film called Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, my father had only done silent pantomime comedy. I was born in 1934, and Harry Langdon went on to do many more films until he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1944. His talents were many, and I have inherited some in a different form. My carpentry skills and painting and drawing were drawn from my father’s genes, and possibly he still has a big influence on me creatively.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you remember about your relationship with your dad?
Harry Langdon, Jr.: From the time I can remember, he was always “on” and trying to entertain me with fun skits. He introduced me to carpentry and used to build things that were needed around the house as well as props for his stage acts. Around the house, my dad would also do watercolor artworks. I still have many of them. He was an adept caricaturist and did them for the soldiers in the US canteen during the way.
We used to play with my toy soldiers and model airplanes. Dad organized a Boy Scout vaudeville play that was done at my school and got me very involved with the Scouts. On weekends, many Hollywood actors would come to our home for barbecues, and they all would play with me. Laurel and Hardy, Red Skelton and Vernon Dent were there. We always had a piano, and he would play ragtime tunes, and everyone would sing those great songs. Dad would stop and let others play, and he would do his soft shoe and tap routines to entertain the kids. He would also sing and play banjo. The kids and I were all hysterical with laughter.
We always had very large homes, and the last one was a two-story mansion in the Hollywood Hills. We even had my grandmother living there. That is where he passed away. That was what the first 10 years of my life was like. Just like the end of a film, it all stopped suddenly when he died.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What about your personal life, Harry?
Harry Langdon, Jr.: I’ve been married three different times. They were nice girls who were not successful in business. I wanted to see each of them have a presence in LA, so I introduced them to my connections and helped them become known members of society. Over the years, they have become so confident and have become secure women. But sometimes it backfires, you know? They started finding fault with me or saying that I wasn’t doing enough. You can only go so far in introducing them to so many people in society.
This has happened three times – building up confident women, buying them beautiful cars and homes, and they ask, “What are we going to do now?” They have security, and they want more. A lot of men go through this. I saw it happen to the fellow who owned Herbalife, Mark Hughes. Sometimes it implodes on the relationship. Mark overdosed on too many … probably his own vitamins. His beautiful wife found him dead in their colossal Malibu home. I’ve just seen it happen over and over.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you married now?
Harry Langdon, Jr.: I’m separated. My wife is living in Colorado right now. She’s a beautiful woman, and she has become this wonderful, secure person. We thought it would be best to live separately only because we’re both such dynamic people. Sometimes there’s just too much energy having two dynamic beings under the same roof. We do better separately, visiting back and forth.
I’m comfortable being by myself. I don’t need to live and sleep with someone. Many guys just want a warm body to sleep with. It’s kind of selfish to feel that way. It’s good to be more of an independent person who is confident on his own.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will you ever retire?
Harry Langdon, Jr.: I can’t retire. I have created this machine where I have income constantly coming in from the sales of my photographs. Recently, a book publisher bought many of my Arnold Schwarzenegger photos for his bio, I just did another album cover on Crystal Gayle, and my Dottie West pictures are always popular. I’ve learned in this career not to get judgmental about others because we’re all in this together.
People come in and pay me a lot of money to shoot them, and they’re sort of under my control here. I can tell them to smile or frown, so at times, I’ve let it go to my head. You know what they say, “If one begins to read their own publicity and starts believing too much of it, it may not be good,” or words to that effect. So I’ve been humbled many times. I believe that God reorients a person to get them back in line.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever been interested in writing a memoir?
Harry Langdon, Jr.: I already have a book written on my father. I have thousands of pictures that my mother saved over the years. My own stories are quite interesting about a guy being born to a famous person and having that taken away and then making it on his own. I would enjoy doing a book, not just about my life and my photography, but also incorporating my personal commentary on society, success and relationships between powerful married people.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s the secret of your success, Harry?
Harry Langdon, Jr.: Well, I’ve never had to borrow money except for a few credit cards. I’ve made millions of dollars over the years, but it’s not so much the money. It’s the creative satisfaction that I get from it all. You also have to make sure that you are willing to work long hours, keep your nose to the grindstone and don’t get distracted by women and night clubbing.
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