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NOTE: This tribute was first published online on Feb. 13, 2008. The response I've received since then has been wonderful, from fans and collectors of Amsel's work, to those who knew the artist personally -- including former classmates, close friends, and family members. By incorporating these new personal remembrances into the context of the original article, I'm often challenged in keeping it all together in a cohesive way. Perhaps that's just my roundabout way of saying it's all a continuous work in progress.

My sincere thanks to everyone who shared their stories, enthusiasm, and appreciation, especially Dorian Hannaway, David Edward Byrd, Michael Danahy, Marsha Lee, and Michael Amsel for their invaluable time and insight.

More, much more, about the life and career of Mr. Amsel will be coming over the next few weeks, so please be sure to visit this page again. If you knew Richard, or currently own any of his work, I envy you to no end, and encourage you to contact me so that this online tribute may be as extensive and accurate as possible.

Last updated: April 3, 2009


(1)

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.


Have whip, will travel: Poster for RAIDERS' 1982 re-release, featuring Amsel's trademark montage illustration style.

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 vehicle, HELLO DOLLY, it was Amsel's design that took the prize; the artist was then a ripe old age of 22.

On a personal level, perhaps it's because both Leyendecker and Amsel strike me as enigmas that I find them so intriguing. Little is 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.


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.

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 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?


BIOGRAPHY

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.


Bette Midler (2)
1973
Acrylic and ink on board
30 x 23 1/2 in.


Bette Midler -- Clams on the Half Shell (2)
Oil on canvas
29 7/8 x 30 in.

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.


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.

His work graced the cover of TIME -- a portrait of comedienne Lily Tomlin, now housed in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. 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.


For this opulent cover featuring Shogun, Amsel took inspiration from the bold lines and vivid colors of Japanese art. For the original painting, he employed actual gold leaf on the clouds in the background. (5)


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. (5)


THE 1980's

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).


TV Guide: Oct. 26-Nov. 1, 1985 (4)
The final work of art completed by Richard Amsel. He died less than three weeks later, on Nov. 17, 1985. He was 37 years old.

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.

His last film poster was for MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME, the third of George Miller's apocalyptic action movies with Mel Gibson. His final completed artwork was for an 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 was to have done the poster for the ROMANCING THE STONE sequel, THE JEWEL OF THE NILE.

It's been over two 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 this article was completed.) Peak's sons, including artist Matthew Joseph, maintain an online archive of their late father's work, and are currently developing a book of his movie poster illustrations. 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.

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.


PERSONAL REMEMBRANCES

Dorian Hannaway is the director of late night programming at CBS Entertainment. For years she has been the champion of Amsel's work, fighting to get his name better recognized. She also owns many of Amsel's original pieces. But to call her a collector is inaccurate, for Hannaway's interest was -- and remains -- a very, very personal one.

She first met Richard Amsel in 1974, and the two struck up a close friendship that lasted until his death. Perhaps it lasts still, for while we discussed the artist at length, Hannaway often tenderly referred to him as "My Richard." It was clear to me that she is still wounded by his absence.


TV Guide: Jan. 27, 1979 (11)
Amsel's portrait of Katherine Hepburn is one of my personal favorites.

"No one, no one ever worked as hard as Richard," she said, almost forcefully, in our first phone conversation. Her knowledge led me to better appreciate the man, as well as the artist I'd idolized. Hannaway, in fact, conducted one of the few known recorded interviews with Amsel, a profile of the artist for Emerald City, a cable access show. Made in 1978, Amsel described his work on the poster for the motion picture DEATH ON THE NILE.

Among their circle of friends were Jerry Alten, the art director of TV Guide, and artist David Edward Byrd.

Byrd is celebrated for his work featuring Jimi Hendrix, The Who and their rock opera TOMMY, the commemorative poster for Woodstock, and countless Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. (His poster for GODSPELL is especially famous.) He, too, was eager to share his recollections of the late artist.

Amsel, I would learn, was someone who was warm, gracious, and full of life -- a handsome young man, stunningly gifted, who surrounded himself with good friends, and was receptive to and reciprocating in his friendships. But he was also a complex man who, as is the case with many artists, clung to his privacy and kept a great deal to himself.

"Richard was an odd man," Byrd said, his tone far more affectionate than in any way critical. "I called him the savant. He was this genius, but had trouble negotiating life in a bad way. He had no taste in clothes, but his taste in art was impeccable. ... He wore the same outfit everyday: a plaid shirt and bluejeans. I asked him if he wore the same things all the time, or just had a thousand copies of them! ... (Yet) he was vain in the way he looked. He was very handsome, but he would never wear his glasses -- he didn't like the way they looked on him! So he couldn't see, he was almost blind!"

I asked Byrd if he considered Amsel something of a social misfit. He agreed, believing the description accurate. He added in an email:

Richard and I got on very well. We loved to talk with each other about everything -- sometimes we would be on the phone for five hours -- art history, artists, technique, boyfriends, 3-strip technicolor, gossip, pop culture, drugs, Nathalie Kalmus, Pete Smith, pencils, Earl 'The Pearl' Moran, Film Noir, etc., etc...

I went to California for the first time with Richard and Dori -- Richard and I had just delivered TV Guide covers to Jerry Alten the day before (John Travolta by Amsel and Robert Conrad by myself). We made a lot of Super-8 movies together. I was Richard's date at the big TV Guide banquet at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. It honored both the subjects and their artists. I remember we were at the table with Julia Child and Henry Kissinger. We stayed in a seedy hooker hotel not far from the event. We made a long movie about that trip, which is pretty amusing!

In describing Amsel's personality, both friends emphasized the artist's sharp, droll style of humor. "He was very silly, very funny," Hannaway said. "No one had a sense of humor like he had." Byrd laughed, "He had no social skills, but he had a stringent wit."

In addition to his drawing abilities, Hannaway said that Amsel was quite the skilled photographer. Working with the late gay activist and writer Vito Russo (co-founder of GLAAD and author of The Celluloid Closet), Amsel contributed photographs to articles published in The Advocate magazine.


SCHOOL DAYS

After this article was originally published, I was contacted by other people willing to share some of their personal recollections of Richard Amsel. Among them was one of his classmates at the Philadelphia College of Art, Rhonda W. Gross. Even in those early school days, Amsel's abilities -- as it had been with J.C. Leyendecker -- were easily apparent. Gross wrote in an email:

It was obvious from the first weeks that he was a special person, a generous spirit and worth watching. It was an amazing class, that group from 1965 to 1969. Many of us went on to become teachers as well as practicing artists. Richard was so advanced that many of our professors were intimidated by him. They need not have been, as he was a gentle soul who was generous with his methods and techniques. I was a rapt observer, believe me. ...

Richard was so amazingly ahead of the rest of us in so many ways. His technique was fearless experimentation with materials and techniques that we would wonder how the art projects were going to work. Somehow, they always did and we expanded our knowledge base by watching him, sometimes to the consternation of our professors.

Through the years I would see examples of his work in the commercial art sector, and I was personally honored to have known such a talented person.


TAKING NEW YORK BY STORM...IN A TINY APARTMENT WITHOUT AN EASEL.

Another person who contacted me was Michael Danahy, who met Amsel in 1971 shortly after moving out to New York from L.A. Both men were only in their early twenties at the time, but by even then, Danahy was amazed at Amsel's talent and reputation.

"We met at upper east side bar," Danahy said, noting that Amsel didn't like to travel to the other side of the city. "I think he thought it was beneath him," he laughed.

Yet Amsel's own living accomodations back then could hardly be deemed extravagant. They definitely weren't spacious.

"It was smaller than most motel rooms," David Byrd chuckled, remembering Amsel's Manhattan pad. "It was maybe 400 square feet ... it had a tiny kitchenette. I could probably do a drawing of what it looked like. ... He had an apartment in a luxe door-man high-rise on the Upper East Side. ... Even when he moved out to L.A., he always had to have a doorman!"

Dorian Hannaway recalled how Amsel owned his own prints of several classic Disney animated films, and would invite people over to watch them. "He had a little one bedroom apartment up on East 83rd Street, and would project CINDERELLA on the wall."


The Big Sleep (3)
1978
Watercolor, acrylic, colored pencils, airbrush on board
22 7/8 x 16 in.

"Richard kept all his art supplies in a cardboard grocery box under the bed," David Byrd said. "His bed was like a narrow cot that could hold one person barely. Next to that was a 35mm projector for his vast collection of 3-strip Technicolor prints of everything worth seeing in that medium, from GONE WITH THE WIND to COBRA WOMAN. He had a hole cut in the wall of the bedroom so he could project the films on the opposite living room wall. We had movie nights at least twice a month, it seems."

The sparse living arrangements remain vividly within Michael Danahy's mind. "Richard lived on those stawberry pop tarts," he said. "He never left his apartment, especially when he was working. Everything was disorganized. He had this little bedroom off to the left, and always hid his paintings whenever guests came over."

This latter fact, Danahy explained, hinted at the artist's extreme privacy whenever his work was concerned. "He was really hesistant to show anything until it was in the form in which it was intended. He'd never let anybody watch him paint."

That is, almost never -- for Danahy recalls one occasion when he had the rare opportunity to see his friend at work. "I had to crash at his place one night because I couldn't get home. Richard had a deadline. ... He was always late, always disorganized, always started the night before, always up all night, sitting on his very 70s sofa with the canvas balanced on his knees..."

"His knees?" I asked, not quite believing I'd heard Danahy right.

I had. Such a revelation filled me with creative shock and awe. It seems unthinkable that Amsel, who, having already established himself with several major motion picture campaigns, not only lived within such a tiny space...but was an artist without an easel.

David Byrd wrote:

Probably the most amazing thing that people do not know about Richard was his working habits. Richard worked on his little glass dining table with the cardboard box of Prisma Pencils, frisket, etc., on the floor beside him. He never allowed anyone to see him work. He was truly a 'savant' in that he could create a gorgeous piece almost anywhere. ...

He came to my loft very often. I had a 5000 square foot place in Chelsea, right off 5th Avenue at 17th. He often shot photos for his jobs at my loft. For instance, with THE BIG SLEEP, I stood in for Robert Mitchum and my assistant, Amy, was Candy Clark.


THE DIVINE MISS M


The Divine Miss M (2)
1972
Watercolor, acrylic and colored pencils
14 x 14 1/2 in.

Michael Danahy described how Amsel's creative influences were often a mesh of art, personalities, and pop culture. "Richard's most favorite subjects were famous women and iconic gay characters. He was fascinated by them. … He did the Bette Midler portrait because he wanted to meet her. … He was courting her, but she was also courting him."

That courtship, as Danahy described it, began while Midler was at the start of her career, making a name for herself by performing in nightclubs and to packed audiences at gay bathhouses (the latter earning her more cheerful, endearing renown than sordid infamy).

"I took him (Richard) to see Midler perform at Carnegie Hall," Danahy said. "She was incredible … then we all went to a party afterwards and everyone was on drugs. But Bette Midler wouldn't even smoke a joint, when all the rest of us did! … They were crazy times."

It was Barry Manilow who introduced Midler to Richard Amsel, and, their courtship sealed, the artist set off to do the cover of Midler's debut album. That proved to be a watershed moment in Amsel's career, and Danahy managed to witness it firsthand.

He recalled his curiosity over how the final portrait was going to look: "I asked him what the cover was going to look like, but Richard was still working on it and didn't want to show me. Instead he grabbed a napkin and drew Bette Midler's face. And that was it, her face was immediately captured down on that sketch."

Amsel and Manilow were good friends, Danahy said, but there was a strained moment between them when Manilow, by then readying an album of his own, asked Amsel to do the cover -- and was denied. "Manilow was really upset over that," Danahy said, and explained how Amsel, because he was always working, had times when he needed to be selective about the projects he worked on.


EVER THE STRUGGLING ARTIST


Elenora Duse
1971
Size and medium unknown.

Danahy added: "Richard struggled a lot (back then), and would put things off because -- and I know this sounds strange -- because he felt he worked best doing everything all at once. I ran into him one time and he was stressed out about finishing a project. I asked him, 'Why aren't you working on it now?' and he said, 'I just can't work that way… I need to wait.'"

And however lucrative Amsel's commissions may have been, Danahy tellingly added that Amsel's head for financial matters was similarly remiss. "Richard had an agent and worked with Society of illustrators in New York," he said. "He'd make around $5000 a poster in the early seventies. ... that was a hell of a lot of money in those days. … But he spent money as quickly as he earned it. … It's not that he was deliberately indulgent or extravagant, he just could never hold on to his money."

Danahy recounted an oddly humorous tale regarding a Barbara Streisand portrait Amsel had painted in the style of Gustav Klimt -- which was stolen while on exhibit at the Philadelphia Art College. "The painting was gorgeous," he said. "I was shocked when I found out, and I asked Richard if he was okay. I thought he'd be so upset, but instead he laughed ... he was compensated $147,000, and was thrilled! He told me, 'God, I hope they don't find it, otherwise I might have to give all that money back!'"

Danahy admits that he lost touch with Amsel after 1973, but values the close friendship they had during their few years together. Now a film producer in Los Angeles, Danahy is also a proud owner of one of Amsel's original pieces - a paperback book cover illustration for Eleanora Duse, given to Danahy by the artist himself.

"He was planning to throw it out to make more room in his apartment," Danahy said, "so I asked him if I could have it." Ever the bargain hunter for films to show on his beloved movie nights, Amsel offered Danahy the painting in exchange for some of his Disney reels. Today, Eleanora Duse remains framed and on display within Danahy's home.


THE ARTIST'S TECHNIQUE


Amsel's painting for THE SHOOTIST, John Wayne's final film, incorporated gold paint on the background even though its shimmering effect couldn't be reproduced on the posters. (2)

I asked Dorian Hannaway about Amsel's painting technique, for however familiar I may have been with the artist's work, I'd yet to see many images chronicling his creative process. It's one thing to see a finished piece, but quite another to see how it all started.

Amsel worked with all sorts of mediums. He frequently used thin glazes of acrylic, like washes of watercolor, and then applied colored pencils and pastels. He'd then go back and forth, combining them little by little, layer upon layer, until the piece was completed to his satisfaction.

Sometimes his methods were more exotic. For his illustration on THE SHOOTIST, Amsel used gold paint to accentuate the background, even though printing limitations prevented its shimmering effect from being accurately reproduced. For McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, the artist's "canvas" was an actual piece of wood, keeping in the style of the period western.


PRESERVING AMSEL'S LEGACY

When I first met with Dorian Hannaway at CBS, my eyes lit up upon entering her office. Amsel's posters dominate the room - each one tastefully placed, beautifully framed. There was also an original piece - a curious, three-sided block of wood Amsel painted as part of a promo for the film THE LAST OF SHEILA. I held the thing in my hands and was stunned by the level of detail -- so good that it was as if Amsel had painted it five times its actual size, then glued shrunken photographs of the artwork to each side. The greedy little kid in me was tempted to steal it.

Hannaway took out a large, handmade three-ringed binder, an impressive thing several inches thick. She opened it to reveal a chronological archive of Amsel's work. The book itself seemed to be a labor of love -- Hannaway's prized possession, her own little Holy Grail or Ark of the Covenant. I could hardly blame her, for as we sat on the couch flipping through the pages I was transfixed by the images I saw.


Poster for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK's American release in 1981. George Lucas owns the original Amsel art, while Steven Spielberg owns the re-release illustration.

There were pages, many pages, of Xeroxed pencil sketches, of color photocopies, of art comps and studies. Some were simple thumbnail sketches - tiny things Amsel loosely whipped up on the fly; seeing them was like stepping through a doorway to his mind. Other colored sketches were quite detailed - so good, in fact, that they could have easily made for impressive final designs.

There was a copy of a GQ cover Amsel painted in the style of Gustav Klimt, a glorious thing the Austrian might have done himself. There were sketches of Richard Chamberlain in samurai garb, studies for the TV Guide SHOGUN issue; Hannaway shared that Amsel used actual gold leaf for the final illustration.

Most of this I'd never seen before in any form. They included designs for such films as CUBA, KRULL, SAHARA, and GREYSTOKE -- poster campaigns that Amsel didn't get. Even the most talented runners can still lose a race, and I realized that however much success he enjoyed, Amsel still had to fight like hell to get each job.

Byrd later confirmed my feelings, adding: "Richard never did art for his own pleasure. He needed to be paid."

Hannaway showed me Amsel's RAIDERS comps. The first sketch was a quick pencil rough - a tiny image of Harrison Ford, whip in hand, with small circles standing in for what two or three characters would be. Yet even in this early form, Amsel's layout for the first Indiana Jones poster was almost exactly identical to the final product.

"That was it," Hannaway said. "Richard came up with it, just that way. He drew Harrison Ford, and that's how it stayed for the final poster."

The next page revealed Amsel's color composition for the design, a second step between the tiny rough sketch and the large final illustration. It was detailed, drawn very much like the polished portrait, but with bolder lines and more vivid red and orange colors. Both beautiful and commanding, it reminded me of Bob Peak's intense portrait of Marlon Brando, done for his eye-catching APOCALYPSE NOW poster.

Hannaway owns this original comp, but getting it was a task worthy of Indiana Jones; the passage of years, and collectors' high demand for Amsel's work, have made the artist's original pieces very, very hard to come by.


A TRAGIC LOSS

I asked Hannaway if Richard's death was sudden. It was.

"He found out he had AIDS in September, and he was dead by late November," Hannaway said softly. By then the disease had ravaged many in the gay community, and few medical advancements had been made in treating those afflicted. Rock Hudson's death happened just the month before.

In 1985, soon after Amsel moved out to Los Angeles, Byrd grew increasingly alarmed by his appearance. "I'd never seen him look so thin," Byrd said. "He was also chain smoking, and I'd never seen him smoke before."

He recalled their last conversation. "He said he was going to New York and needed an operation. Then," Byrd sighed, "he was dead."

Michael Danahy, too, was shocked by the news of his old friend's death, and expressed his profound sadness over the loss of nearly an entire generation of gifted artists and performers to AIDS. Many other friends from his days in New York were taken by the disease, including celebrated illustrator George Stavrinos, with whom Danahy was especially close. Danahy's testimony not only provides us with a rare glimpse into Amsel's early career, but serves as a stark reminder of the profound impact -- and tragedy -- of the epidemic.


A FAMILY REMEMBERS

It would be inappropriate to ever consider this tribute complete without hearing from members of Amsel's family, so imagine my reaction to the following email (excerpted), which I received in early September of 2008:

This is Michael Amsel, Richard's brother. I just wanted to commend you on your extraordinary web site about my brother. What a marvelous tribute! You captured everything about him, so accurate, so moving. No one was more prolific or harder working than my brother. He accomplished more in 37 years than anyone I have ever met. He would have absolutely loved the web site.

Anyway … I just want to thank you again for your marvelous work. It really brings a tear to my eye. What a great way to keep Richard's memory alive!

Michael generously accepted my request for a phone interview, which was followed some weeks later by a separate call from his twin sister, Marsha Lee. Throughout our conversations, it was clear how much they both still held their older brother in loving esteem.


Photo of Richard Amsel. (2)

"The first word that comes to my mind when I think of Richard is prolific," Michael said. "To do what he did in 37 years is amazing. To have potential is one thing, but to really push yourself and realize it is another."

I asked Michael about their childhood, and if Richard's creative prowess was evident at an early age. "We were very different as kids. I was always out playing, while he was always in our room at his desk," he told me. "When we were about six or seven, we all did those paint-by-numbers books, and Richard's were, like, PERFECT. You'd look at it and couldn't believe it was a paint-by-numbers. There were no lines, it all looked like a real painting. That showed the kind of work he was capable of."

He described how Richard's interests and abilities intensified through his teens. "Even when he was in high school, he just worked endlessly," he said. "Some of his early stuff is really amazing, and clearly foreshadowed his greatness. … It's incredible how true Richard's drawings were to the people in them."

Marsha Lee described a little bit about their background. The Amsel siblings grew up in Lynwood, Pennsylvania, and their father ran a small clothing and toy shop in the nearby town of Ardmore. "Mom would give Richard these model toys and paints from the store, and he'd be fascinated with them," she said. "I think she was the one who gave him his very first set of paints.

"We were a lot alike. ... People say that Richard and I had similar expressions, in the ways we'd react," Marsha said. "Sometimes, back when we were kids, after our parents would leave the house, Richard would take Mom's makeup and do up my face. ... We both loved glamour!"

Michael told a story about a young girl Richard had been best friends with during childhood. She lived across the street from them, and was an aspiring artist herself. When they graduated, it was she -- not Amsel -- who won the coveted art scholarship. "It was disappointing for him," Michael said. "It wasn't easy for our parents, either, with all these kids in the house and going off to college."

Ironically, while Amsel went on to worldwide fame, Michael believes that their childhood neighbor never established an art career of her own.

Michael's own son, Joseph Richard Amsel, now attends his late uncle's almer mater, Philadelphia's University of the Arts. "Joseph has aspirations of someday working in film," Michael said, "and clearly has been inspired by Richard, who he knows only from the pictures at our home and exhibitions he has attended. Today, he has his first illustration class at University of the Arts … and off he goes. What were the odds of him following Richard there?"

In what is perhaps a bittersweet victory of sorts, Joseph was also awarded the very same art scholarship that had eluded Richard back when he was his nephew's age. "I like to think of it as fate," Michael says proudly. "It runs in the family."

He added, "Fate, it seems, brought me to discover your site at what was a very emotional time for me. My wife and I just returned from taking Joseph … to Philadelphia. ... It just warms my heart to no end to see him there because I remember how Richard came of age, with his drawing boards and paint supplies jammed into the trunk of a red Corvair, and his endless hours of work at home, when he returned from classes. …

"One of the professors I met at University of the Arts freshman orientation last week remembered Richard coming back to the school in his late twenties, and giving a speech. 'He was treated like a rock star that day,' the professor said. 'The students were in awe.'"

While Michael himself was at college, a surreal moment occurred one day when he walked through the streets of Columbus ... and saw a familiar looking poster at a nearby movie theater.


Amsel's winning design for Fox's HELLO DOLLY campaign, 1969. (The final poster can be seen here.)

"I still remember (Richard) painting the HELLO DOLLY illustration in our room and seeing it, two years later, at a movie house in Columbus, Ohio, when I was a freshman at Ohio State University. It has been a lifetime inspiration for me. It made me realize what a small world we live in. … Dreams can become real … It really blew my mind when I saw it.

Over the years, Michael and Richard remained in contact, but saw less and less of each other. While Richard's career in art flourished, his younger brother embarked on a career in journalism. "There was mutual admiration between us," Michael said. "I loved journalism, and he loved art."

Michael remembers a time later on, after moving out to New Jersey, that he went inside a convenience store and saw one of Richard's TV Guide covers on sale. "He must have done about forty of those covers -- my God, how did he churn them out so fast? -- but seeing them, it was through that, you knew that he was well. It was like his way of telling us, 'I'm alright, I'm doing okay...'"

Alas, Michael Amsel admits that they did not have much communication towards the end. They reunited briefly for their grandfather's funeral -- "It was weird, with all that grief, and after all those years," he said -- but when Richard's illness began to get the better of him, Michael said that he and his family were largely left in the dark.

In the time leading up to Richard's death, Michael was facing a health crisis of his own -- one that left both him and his parents occupied. "I was in a hospital in New Jersey about the same time Richard was (in another hospital). I had a couple of broken disks, and was having a laminectomy. I was out of work for five months, stuck in bed. … My parents came out to visit and helped me, but they hardly knew about Richard's situation."

Then, late one night, came the terrible, devastating news: Michael's mother called to tell him that Richard was dead.

It was as if the ground had fallen out from beneath their feet. A shock. A tragedy. Something no parent should ever have to hear, and no brother would ever wish to imagine.

It was Michael who delivered Richard's eulogy, but it was a number of years before he truly faced dealing with the psychological scars of love and loss left in the wake of his brother's passing.


In 1987, many of Amsel's remaining originals were auctioned off by Christie's.

"It wasn't until the last eight to ten years that I really came to terms with it," Michael said, adding that through his work as a journalist -- by covering stories and talking to people about death -- he finally managed to find a form of catharsis of his own.

The pain surrounding Richard Amsel's passing was further complicated by the state of his unfinished financial affairs. This led to an auction in 1987, sponsored by Christie's, whereby a large portion of the artist's work was put up for public sale.

Michael sighs as he remembers it all: "The Christie's auction … I guess it's such a mystery. So much of his work … so unfortunate." Nevertheless, he tries his best to put it in perspective with his brother's creative spirit. "Richard was the quintessential artist. He was so focused on his work that all the other things in his life just fell by the wayside. That was the result of the genius of the artist."

Michael and Marsha are delighted by the enduring popularity of Richard's work, as well as the inspiration artists and illustrators the world over continue to take from it. Their support of (and contribution to) this website mean the world to me.

"Thanks for everything you've done for Richard," Michael told me. "You're part of Richard's renaissance."


AN APPRECIATION

I've always admired Richard Amsel's work, and after talking to those who knew him, I can now admire the man. Certainly I'd value the opportunity to hear from others who knew him; I'd be glad to include their comments here.

David Edward Byrd reflected in an email:

Richard was my art hero, a true A-Team player. I always considered myself on the B-Team, so to speak, a modest talent with a modest success. And, oddly, Richard Amsel is the only illustrator I have known socially, except for my first student at Pratt Institute, Frank Verlizzo, who became a great Broadway Poster artist....

I am forever in awe of his (Richard's) ability to draw in any style. In even the tiniest sketch, the likeness of the person is there.

Amsel's death may have been tragic, but his life assuredly was not. In spite of his absence, let us simply give thanks for those magical things about him that were left to us...

The work.

And what great work it is! It is silent, yet speaks volumes. It is clever and romantic, sometimes tacky and fanciful. It is often striking and it is always gorgeous.

Take a look at some of the images here. Study them; imagine how they came to be before the use of colored pixels and stylus pens. These are not just polished illustrations, they are true works of art...the labors of a true artist. They've excited moviegoers and inspired new generations of artists and illustrators. I proudly consider myself among them.

Looking back on his days with Richard Amsel, Byrd said, "We lived in a time that was more interesting." The sentiment doesn't surprise me, for interesting times, I suspect, are largely the result of being in the company of interesting people.

Here's to you, Richard, wherever you may be.

Copyright (c) 2008, 2011 Adam McDaniel.

A few days after our phone conversation, I received an envelope in the mail from Michael Amsel. I opened it to find an undated sketch that his brother had done of Marilyn Monroe. I always dreamed of one day having a Richard Amsel original, but never thought it'd ever come to pass. Michael proved me wrong. Dreams, it seems, can indeed come true.