PORTRAITS IN STARDUST:
The Art of Richard Amsel
To date, Lucille Ball has appeared on more than three dozen covers of TV Guide magazine (not to mention a zillion covers of other magazines), but perhaps none pleased her more than the TV Guide cover of July 6, 1974, featuring artwork by Richard Amsel. Lucy liked the work so much that two years later, when Gary Morton produced the two-hour CBS Salutes Lucy: The First 25 Years, he arranged for the Amsel art to be included under the special's opening credits.
Lucy and Gary were not the only ones to appreciate the artistry of Richard Amsel. For a decade and a half, from his professional debut in 1970 until his early death in 1985, Amsel was considered by many to be the pop illustrator of the show-business world, the yardstick against which all others were measured.
Amsel's work, once described as "thoroughly captivating, totally romantic, artful commercial art," combined a unique sense of "now" with a keen fondness for earlier times. As one critic remarked, "Amsel's work usually pays affectionate tribute to the past. 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."
"I'm interested in uncovering relationships between the past and the present," Amsel once confessed, "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."
Richard Amsel was born in Philadelphia in 1948. He studied at that city's College of Art, and "exploded" onto the New York art scene in 1970 after creating the poster art for Barbra Steisand's film version of "Hello, Dolly."
The early 1970s witnessed a keen interest in nostalgia. A war was raging in Southeast Asia, and people, possibly yearning for a simpler, more innocent time, rediscovered their show-business past. Old records, old movies, old stage shows were dusted off and reissued, remade or revived -- often with Richard Amsel providing the artwork.
In 1971, for example, RCA Victor uncrated some of its old Helen O'Connell, Maurice Chevalier and Benny Goodman classics and reissued them on then-state-of-the-art discs. Amsel art graced the cover of each.
Amsel's work caught the eye of songwriter- musician Barry Manilow, who at the time was working with a just-emerging young entertainer named Bette Midler. Bette's act, in which she billed herself as "The Divine Miss M," included an irreverent combination of old and contemporary tunes -- seasoned with more than a soupcon of risque humor. Bette took one look at Amsel's portfolio and decided he should do the cover of her first Atlantic Records album. The cover (photo left) became one of most obiquitous of the year. Amsel subsequently designed the cover of Bette's second album (photo right), and provided the artwork for her 1974 "Clams on the Half Shell" revue.
More movie assignments materialized, and during the next few seasons Amsel supplied illustrations for the campaigns of such notable films as "Up the Sandbox" (Streisand), "The Sting" (Paul Newman and Robert Redford), "Lucky Lady" (Liza Minnelli), "The Shootist" (John Wayne and Lauren Bacall), "The Late Show" (Lily Tomlin), "Julia" (Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave), "Flash Gordon," "The Muppet Movie" and "A Star is Born" (both the 1976 Streisand remake and the 1983 reissue of the Judy Garland classic).
TV Guide, always on the lookout for good illustrators, commissioned Amsel to do a 1972 cover of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (whose love affair was being chronicled in a made-for-television movie). More assignments followed, and over the years he provided portraits of such stars as Mary Tyler Moore, John Travolta, Elvis Presley, Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable (the latter two for the 1976 television premiere of "Gone With the Wind"). Following is just a sample:
Amsel covers (left to right) capture Angie Dickenson and Earl Holliman
("Police Woman"); Valerie Harper ("Rhoda"); and Vivien Leigh and
Clark Gable ("Gone With the Wind").
Amsel's Lucy cover heralded an article that discussed her "retirement" from series television (the Here's Lucy series was ending), and recapping her 23-year television career. Richard surrounded himself with dozens of photos of the famous redhead, examining her from every angle. "I did not want the portrait to be of Lucy Ricardo," he explained at the time, "but I did not want a modern-day Lucy Carter either. I wanted it to have the same timeless sense of glamour that Lucy herself has. She is, afterall, a former Goldwyn Girl. I hoped to capture the essence of all this." His efforts pleased the lady very much.
Richard's last assingment for TV Guide took him to the other end of the television spectrum: completed shortly before his death, it featured the faces of TV news anchors Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather.
Form the very early days of his career, Amsel's work proved so popular that consumers purchased copies of his posters and magazines to frame and hang in their homes. Flattered but modest, Amsel once remarked, "Commercial art can be and sometimes is art, but if someone hangs a poster, it is still a poster pretending to be something it's not. My work is basically for the printed page, and not for hanging in living rooms... If, however, I paint or draw something that takes people into the realm of fantasy, then I feel that I've accomplished something."
"Portraits in Stardust: The Art of Richard Amsel" was originally
published in our Star Notes magazine in Spring, 1993, and is one
in a series of electronic reprints "from our archives."
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