NBC's Bill Purdy: Have Camera, Will Travel
Pizzello, Stephen, American Cinematographer
A veteran news cameraman recounts documenting history from Vietnam to the L.A. riots
Over the past 30 years, the globe has undergone a series of historic geopolitical and social upheavals that will provide fascinating fodder for history students well into the future. Wars and riots have erupted, governments have risen and fallen, and Communism has seen its symbolic collapse with the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Through it all, expert news cameraman Bill Purdy recorded images for all three major networks and the U.S. Army from almost every major hot spot the Earth had to offer.
Purdy's experiences provided him with a rare opportunity to see how the world really works, from a ringside seat. Over the course of his three decades as a journalistic soldier of fortune, the 49-year-old cameraman has covered the Vietnam War, coordinated the entire photographic setup for President Richard M. Nixon's second-term inauguration, introduced the first electronic camera into Asia for ABC News, and covered breaking stories, often under fire, in foreign locales that include Hong Kong, London, Tokyo, the Phillipines and the Middle East. Purdy's most recent assignments included fuming the 1992 Los Angeles riots and President George Bush's concession speech following his election loss to Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.
Not surprisingly, Purdy's recollections are a veritable primer on documentary-style shooting. It takes a particular kind of personality to explore the maelstrom of world events for so long, and Purdy himself is unsure of what drives him. After vowing to scale back his globe-trotting ways in 1990, he returned to the United States and began shooting out of NBC's bureau in Los Angeles. When the L.A. riots broke out, Purdy was on vacation, but he found himself compelled to call the network and offer his assistance. "I could have very easily said, Tm not going to worry about that,' but my conscience, or something, would simply not allow me to sit home and watch," he reflected with a rueful laugh during a recent interview at NEC's Burbank headquarters. "I mean, I was tired of it, but I still picked up the phone. It was my kind of coverage. As soon as I got out there on the streets, though, I started cursing myself out. People were beating on each other, and snipers were firing away at random. I thought to myself, 'Here I go again. What the hell's wrong with me that I keep putting myself in these situations?'"
Purdy's list of accomplishments is even more impressive considering that he never intended to pick up a camera. He entered the Army at age 18; after basic training, Purdy decided to join the Army's Airborne section, where he could earn an extra $50 per month jumping out of airplanes. When it came time for his base assignment, the Army sent him to Fort Mammoth, New Jersey, one of the military organization's signal (communications) schools. "I couldn't figure out why they were sending me there. I told them I didn't know anything about motion pictures, but they said, 'We don't want you to know anything. We're going to teach you everything you'll need to know.'"
True to the promise of their current "Be All That You Can Be" TV slogan, the Army turned Purdy into a crackerjack cameraman. It turned out that the young recruit had an excellent eye for pictures, and the instructors loved him. "Being assigned to motionpicture school was the best thing in the world that could have happened to me," he now admits. "At that time, we were using the Eyemo camera for 35mm and the Filmo for 16mm. I also used Mitchell cameras and the Wahl camera, and learned about timing, processing and editing. We got a lot of experience."
After graduating in six months, Purdy continued to learn by breaking in new equipment that would later be used in Hollywood, including Tyler mounts (for use on helicopters) and Anton-Bauer's batteries and crystal syncs. His next step was a big one: heading into Vietnam for three 90-day tours as part of the Army's Department of the Army Special Photographic Operation (D. …