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“My father wanted me to work at a factory,” recalled Richardson during a recent conversation in the Knowlton home where he and his wife Julia have resided for the last four years. “But I decided to play hooky from school and I went to see the studio manager and got the job. I was this blue-eyed, fair-haired boy, and with the salary – and the tips - I think I was soon making more than my dad.”
Article written & photo of Mr. Richardson by Terry Scott and appearing courtesy of The Township Outlet (Linking the Townships English Speaking Community)
More importantly for the younger Richardson, he was being immersed in every facet of the operation, particularly in devising and building movie sets. This was right up Richardson’s alley, because from a young age he always had a passion for drawing, carpentry, plastering, sculpting, and the art of creating settings that lend authenticity to the world of fantasy and optical illusion.
He eventually joined the studio’s art department, and for more than a decade – interrupted by three years of service in the Royal Air Force – he architecturally transformed vision and concept into cinema vérité, relying on an inquiring, steel-trap mind, a devotion to detail and an ability to find solutions to any problem.
During more than a half-century in the film industry, Richardson traveled to six continents and hundreds of countries, either scouting the terrain for an appropriate filming site, building models and settings on the chosen site and adeptly dealing with the logistical elements of getting a film to the screen.
Along the way, he served as art director or art department collaborator on such notable movies as Lawrence of Arabia – the Oscar winner in 1962 - Moby Dick, The Dam Busters, A Touch of Class, with Glenda Jackson, The Mackintosh Man, directed by John Huston and starring Paul Newman, The Great Gatsby and Havana, with Robert Redford, The Man Who Would Be King, Genghis Khan, Cry Freedom, with Sir Richard Attenborough. One of his last major film credits was as supervising art director for Seven Years in Tibet, with Brad Pitt.
“Pablo Picasso (borrowing from a quote generally attributed to Romanian sculptor and carpenter Constantin Brancusi) said, ‘When we are no longer children, we are already dead,’ noted Richardson. “I’ve been really lucky in that I had the opportunity to work all those years at a job that I enjoyed and one that always made me feel like a kid.”
Each movie set that Richardson worked on added to his solid reputation in the industry. He had just finished collaborating on the 1959 film The World of Suzie Wong – Richardson erected a mountainside home on the set in the space of one month – when John Box, the movie’s art director and trusted production designer for gifted director David Lean, asked George: “How do you feel about going into the desert for three months?”
“That three months became a year,” Richardson recalled of the crew’s stay on the Lawrence of Arabia set, 200 miles from nowhere in the middle of the desert. One of George’s major contributions to the award-winning film was providing a complete storyboarding, as per the original bulky script in a mere two-and-a-half days. “After seeing what I had done with the storyboarding, David Lean said, ‘George, what you did was incredible. “It will show (producer) Sam Spiegel how difficult this is going to be unless we pare down the script.’” It was all part of the job for Richardson, who used his artistic talents in so many ways: building a water-tank model that became one of the props for the flood scene in The Dam Busters, and conducting a location-scouting mission for Sydney Pollack, after the famed director balked at the exorbitant cost of filming “Havana” in Cuba. Not only did Richardson find a double for Havana just outside Santo Domingo, he built a stunning model recreation of downtown Havana on an Air Force base there.
Have Gun Will Travel
Mr. George Richardson did more than just provide art direction on some of the most famous films of all time but he also appeared in 1958 as an actor in the series "Have Gun Will Travel" in the episode where he plays the "Chief's Son" in the 1958 episode "The Lady".
The history of such people in Knowlton is a testament to the creative powers and worldwide experiences that our residents have shared. How proud we are to know that such residents live here in Knowlton!
Buy the DVD "Have Gun Will Travel" and own a small piece of a Knowlton Hero!
Bravo George Richardson!
Richardson has been retired for several years but remains extremely active. He has lost neither his artistic flair, nor the baby blue in his eyes. He continues to turn out paintings with remarkable detail. And he and Julia recently combined their talents to build a fireplace in their home. “What I do miss are the people you meet in the film industry… whether they are actors, directors, the crews you are working with,” said Richardson. “Because when you are working with a team you realize they are so good at what they do.”
He counts a lot of actors as his friends, although he had a cardinal rule of never talking to an actor on the set “unless the actor spoke to me. And I never asked for an autograph in my life.” The friendships he forged were largely because the actors appreciated and respected the work Richardson was doing. One day, on the set of Seven Years in Tibet, Brad Pitt introduced himself and said, “George, things have really changed for the better on this set since you got here.”
Does it bother Richardson that the ordinary moviewatcher is oblivious to the work of the art director?
“Not at all,” he replied. “What we’re doing is creating an atmosphere for the actors to work in…whether it’s in the jungle, the desert or in a bar. If you’re able to create that atmosphere in the movie, it means the sets are good.”
Article written & by Terry Scott appearing courtesy of The Township Outlet (Linking the Townships English Speaking Community)