A child in the 1980's, I lived, breathed, and loved movies. Every genre, every type…from boyhood fantasies of aliens and adventurers courtesy of Spielberg, to somber tales of axe-wielding fathers and war-torn battlefields courtesy of Kubrick. (I saw FULL METAL JACKET three times when it came out; I was a pretty intense 13-year-old.)
But however great my experiences then - this was, after all, the decade of Indiana Jones, Rambo, halfway decent Star Wars sequels, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, and a pre-nippled Batman - I think what excited me most, whenever stepping beneath that local town center theater marquee, was the chance to see the latest round of movie posters.
An important clarification: when I say "movie poster", I'm not referring to the photo-touched, photoshopped, photodigital photocrap that's become the norm these days, slick and stylish though some may be. I'm talking about real movie posters - the big, artful, sometimes cheesy, often delightful product of some guy who actually sat down behind a drafting table and put a sharpened pencil to paper.
That's pencil, I said now. Not pixel.
It's probably the toughest art to master for any illustrator. It's not just about getting the actors' likenesses right; it's about conveying the best and most enticing things a movie going experience can offer -- it's soul, if you will -- even if that sounds a bit inflated when so many films out there are such soulless enterprises.
Most poster artists rarely get the chance to see the very films they're slaving over prior to finishing their work. Commissions often come at the very last minute, with deadlines fast approaching. (A rather inexcusable crime on the studios' part, when one considers the inordinate amount of time they waste gestating their projects.) It's a tough job, and poster artists are a rare breed.
For me, "masters" like Bob Peak, Drew Struzan and Roger Kastel deserve to be held in the same regard as classic illustrators like Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth. Why? Because at their best, their work didn't just convey the highlights of a movie coming soon to a theater near you, but rather they built upon the anticipation, the promise and excitement of what (hopefully) was in store…hinting just enough to whet our appetites, while not spoiling things by giving too much away.
Toggle through some of the pages on my site and it will come as no surprise that RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is my favorite film of all time. But it also has my favorite movie poster of all time.
Look at this poster at right, used for the film's re-release in 1982. I challenge anyone to so perfectly capture a film's spirit within a single drawn image. It's not just that the actors' likenesses are good; here, they take on a larger than life quality -- epic, heroic, even cartoonish, but all in the most wonderful, high-spirited way imaginable. Like the film itself, this poster evokes the grand, stylish, and cheesy fun of 30's and 40's adventure serials, while executed with far more sophistication and visual panache.
Simply put, this poster is the movie, and I've been a fan of both ever since.
Of all the American illustrators of the 20th Century, there are two whose work I have admired the most. The first is Joseph Christian Leyendecker. The second is Richard Amsel.
These men lived and worked decades apart, and their experiences were far removed from each other. Leyendecker, born in Germany in 1874, trained in Chicago and Paris, and produced literally hundreds of works of enormous influence and popularity, most notably his covers for The Saturday Evening Post and his advertisements for "The Arrow Collar Man".
Before Rockwell (with whom the artist had both a close friendship and career rivalry), Leyendecker was the great American illustrator, and his career spanned over half a century. Amsel's career lasted fifteen, a life cut short by the AIDS epidemic. He was 37 years old.
Yet I don't think it's outlandish to make a comparison between these two men. To say that they were extremely gifted is all too obvious; both Leyendecker and Amsel were something of art prodigies, and both began their respective careers at a very young age. In Leyendecker's case, it is said that his talent, while studying at the Chicago Art Institute, was already so sophisticated that his art instructors didn't know what was left to teach him. (Or perhaps Leyendecker felt they had too little to contribute.) In similar fashion, Amsel's career took off while he was still a mere student at the Philadelphia College of Art. When 20th Century-Fox sponsored a nationwide poster contest for their big budgeted Barbara Streisand topper, HELLO DOLLY, it was Amsel's design that took the prize; the artist was then a ripe old age of 21.
On a personal level, perhaps it's because both Leyendecker and Amsel strike me as enigmas that I find them so intriguing. Little was known (or at least has been made public) about their private lives, and, however great their success during their respective careers, neither name is quickly recognized by the public … an especially peculiar, bittersweet fact when compared to the enduring popularity of their work.
Of Leyendecker, this we do know: he was gay, had a lifelong partnership with Charles Beach, a man who served as the artist's model, caregiver, and business "agent" of sorts. Leyendecker remained intensely private about their relationship, and grew increasingly reclusive after the death of his brother, Frank, in 1924. (Frank was a gifted artist in his own right, though he reportedly often struggled with living in the shadow of Joseph's towering success.)
I mention Leyendecker's sexuality not to incongruously dwell on the topic -- the question of how much an artist need be revealed when discussing his art is another matter entirely -- but to put his life in historical perspective. Leyendecker kept his personal life private because, understandably, social attitudes of his day dictated he do so. But so extreme was his need for secrecy that only a handful of photographs of the man still exist; Beach, apparently acting on Leyendecker's instructions, burned many of them upon the artist's death in 1951, along with virtually all of their personal writings. In fact, most of what we know today about Leyedecker's life has been from Norman Rockwell, whose early work was so influenced by the elder artist's that Rockwell devoted an entire chapter to him in his autobiography.
As for Amsel's private life, I feel no need, nor find it in good taste, to besmirch it in any way simply because the man had AIDS. Thousands did then. Millions do now. The virus' only relevance for my discussion here is that it robbed us of a superlative talent, and all the glorious, wonderful work that could have been. And sould have been.
The dearth of available information on Amsel, the man, always seemed odd to me, as his career in the seventies and eighties was relatively recent. Surprising, too, is the almost complete lack of material on Amsel in the two places I had most expected to find them: the Motion Picture Academy Library in Beverly Hills, and the Philadelphia College of Art, where Amsel studied.
His obituary in Variety seemed cruelly brief, even fleeting. It opens, "…illustrator for numerous Hollywood film print campaigns as well as portrait artist for many TV Guide covers, died Nov. 17 (sic**) in New York of pneumonia, it has been learned."
No tributes, no thoughtful eulogies or tender reflections. Of Amsel's family, it merely stated that he left behind his parents, a brother and a sister.
Why does this affect me so? What is it about Amsel's work that I find so remarkable? Why should I wonder so much about the man, and look back on his career with such poignance, even tenderness?
**While Variety's obituary stated Amsel's date of death as Nov. 17th, Michael Amsel's written eulogy confirms the date as Nov. 13th.
Richard Amsel was born in Philadelphia on December 4, 1947. He attended the Philadelphia College of Art, and, thanks in no small part to his winning HELLO DOLLY illustration, quickly found enormous popularity within New York's art scene.
The key to his success, beyond raw talent, was the unique quality of his work and illustrative style. Amsel could perfectly evoke period nostalgia (his posters for THE STING and westerns such as McCABE AND MRS. MILLER come to mind), while also producing something timeless and iconic, perfectly befitting both something old and something new. And however different his approach from one assignment to the other, all would bear his instantly recognizable stamp. Not to mention a damn cool signature.
"Amsel's work usually pays affectionate tribute to the past," one critic stated. "His style, however, is timeless and his attractive use of warm, glowing colors adds an even greater 'modernity' to his evocations of times and styles gone by."
Amsel himself said, "I'm interested in uncovering relationships between the past and the present, and in discovering how things have changed and grown. I don't see any point in copying the past, but I think the elements of the past can be taken to another realm." Such was the case with an early commission from RCA Victor, who asked the artist to create new artwork for their remastered recordings of Helen O'Connell, Maurice Chelalier, and Benny Goodman.
Amsel's illustrations then caught the attention of a young singer/songwriter named Barry Manilow, who at the time was working with a newly emerging entertainer in cabaret clubs and piano bars. Manilow introduced the two, and it was quickly decided that Amsel should do the cover of her first Atlantic Records album.
You could say it was a sure Bette.
The artist's cover for Bette Midler's The Divine Miss M presented the 5'2" entertainer as a sort of natural-born icon, and one would be hard pressed to argue that Amsel's subject didn't deserve such treatment. More album covers soon followed, along with a series of magazine ads for designer Oleg Cassini, but it's Amsel's portraits of the fire-haired diva that remain the most popular -- including her subsequent performance at New York's Palace Theater, which is now included within the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C..
Amsel continued illustrating movie posters, and for some of the most important and popular films of the 1970's: THE CHAMP, CHINATOWN, JULIA, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, THE LAST TYCOON, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN, McCABE & MRS. MILLER, THE MUPPET MOVIE, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, NASHVILLE, PAPILLON, THE SHOOTIST, and THE STING among them. (The latter's poster design paid homage to none other than Leyendecker.)
Though brief, Amsel's career was certainly prolific. By the decade's end his movie posters alone matched or exceeded the creative output of many of his contemporaries. Yet Richard Amsel was far more than just a movie poster artist.
His work graced the cover of TIME -- a portrait of comedienne Lily Tomlin, also housed in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution. In keeping with the magazine's stringent deadlines, Amsel's illustration was created in only two or three days.
LONG ASSOCIATION WITH TV GUIDE
In 1972, TV Guide commissioned him to do a cover featuring the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, coinciding with a telefilm about their love affair. Thus began Amsel's thirteen year association with the entertainment magazine, resulting in 37 published covers -- a record Amsel holds to this day. (Not unlike Leyendecker's record for The Saturday Evening Post.)
The "Amsel covers", now prized collector's items, feature portraits of such figures as Mary Tyler Moore, John Travolta, Elvis Presley, Ingrid Bergman, Johnny Carson, Tom Selleck, Nancy Reagan, Frank Sinatra, Princess Grace and Katherine Hepburn. Particularly notable issues include Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh for GONE WITH THE WIND's television debut, the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, and Richard Chamberlain for the miniseries SHOGUN.
Yet perhaps the most beloved is Amsel's portrait of Lucille Ball, done for the magazine's July 6th, 1974 issue honoring the comedienne's retirement from series television.
"I did not want the portrait to be of Lucy Ricardo," Amsel explained, "but I didn't want a modern-day Lucy Carter either. I wanted it to have the same timeless sense of glamour that Lucy herself has. She is, after all, a former Goldwyn Girl. I hoped to capture the essence of all this." Amsel's work so impressed Ms. Ball that the artwork was later prominently featured in the opening credits of a two-hour television tribute, CBS Salutes Lucy: The First 25 Years.
Years later, representations of Amsel's covers were placed on exhibit at the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills, commemorating TV Guide's fortieth anniversary.
The 1980's marked a dramatic change in movie marketing campaigns, with more and more employing photographs in favor of illustrations. Movie poster artists now faced a narrower field in which to compete, often limited to science fiction, fantasy, and adventure films. The old masters like Bob Peak -- whose bold, striking campaigns for CAMELOT, STAR TREK, SUPERMAN, and APOCALYPSE NOW helped redefine the very nature of movie poster art -- seemed increasingly dated in their style, and had to make way for a new generation of artists (notably Drew Struzan).
Yet Amsel remained productive, his trademark signature becoming a widely recognizable fixture on further magazine covers and movie posters, including such high profile, "event" films as the colorful, campy FLASH GORDON, the elaborate fantasy THE DARK CRYSTAL, and - of course - that action/adventure film with a grandstanding name, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.
Amsel's output garnered numerous awards, from the New York and Los Angeles Society of Illustrators, a Grammy Award, a Golden Key Award from The Hollywood Reporter, and citations from the Philadelphia Art Director's Club. He was posthumously awarded the Alumni Silver Star Award from the University of the Arts, and his portrait of Bette Midler remains a permanent fixture within the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.
Shortly after moving to Los Angeles in the early summer of 1985, Amsel created his last film poster: MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME, the third of George Miller's apocalyptic action movies with Mel Gibson. His final completed artwork was for the October 26th issue of TV Guide, featuring news anchors Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather.
GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
Amsel died less than three weeks later, on November 17, 1985. When he fell ill, he had done preliminary sketches for the ROMANCING THE STONE sequel, THE JEWEL OF THE NILE, but was forced to abandon the project to seek medical treatment back in New York. (An additional TV GUIDE portrait of actor Gary Coleman was published posthumously.)
It's been three decades since Amsel's passing, and in that time we've also said farewells to Bob Peak, Birney Lettick, and John Alvin. (Alvin died of a heart attack hours after the original draft of this article was completed.) Peak's sons, including artist Matthew Joseph, maintain online archives of their late father's work, and a comprehensive book was recently published. Alvin and Struzan also have their own respective websites, with the latter -- now the leading figure among today's successful poster artists -- having two extensive books already published chronicling his career and work. Alvin's widow also recently published a handsome volume of her husband's movie poster art in 2015.
Yet what of Amsel's legacy? While his art continues to amaze and inspire, little has been said about the man himself. I figured surely someone, somewhere in the world was willing and able to speak for him.
Thankfully, I was right.
In researching this article, I came across some rare sketches Amsel did in preparation for his RAIDERS posters. Having never seen them before, I asked their owner how she came to acquire them. Thus began a conversation that led me to many of the answers I'd been searching for.
This tribute was first published online on Feb. 13, 2008. The response I've received since then has been extraordinary, from fans and collectors of Amsel's work, to those who knew the artist personally -- including friends, colleagues, and family members. Over the years, so much new information and testimonials have come in that they warrant far more than just an expanded article, and I'm working on sharing them through another venue soon. For now, most of the writing appears here in its original form, shortcomings and all. Article copyright (c) Adam McDaniel 2008, 2015.
Photograph of Richard Amsel.
Have whip, will travel: Poster for RAIDERS' 1982 re-release, featuring Amsel's dynamic sense of composition and montage. In 2011, TOTAL FILM deemed this the "Greatest Hand-Drawn Movie Poster" of all time.
Amsel's winning design for HELLO DOLLY!, after a nationwide contest held by 20th Century-Fox. This catapulted Amsel's career, who was only 21 at the time, and stil in art school. In November, 2002, the original mock-up of watercolor and paper collage was sold by Michael Amsel at auction for $8800.
Amsel's distinctive signature.
For THE STING's movie poster (detail right, 1973), Amsel's design paid homage to the painting syle of J.C. Leyendecker, and evoked both Leyendecker's "Arrow Collar Man" (left) and his beloved Saturday Evening Post covers. Leyendecker's technique is extremely difficult for even skilled painters to emulate; Amsel was in his mid twenties when he did it.
From the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery: Richard Amsel's 1973 poster of Bette Midler graced Midler’s second album, promoted a national tour, and here announced her appearance to sold-out audiences at New York’s Palace Theater in December 1973. A similar image was reused for later albums and tours.
Talk about a killer deadline! Amsel's cover art for TIME, featuring Lily Tomlin, was created in only two or three days. It is now part of the Smithsonian Institution's permanent collection, along with Amsel's portrait of Bette Midler.
Perhaps the most beloved of all his TV Guide covers, Amsel's illustration of Lucille Ball honored her overall "timeless sense of glamour" rather than referencing a specific period.