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Have you built a similar rapport with other subjects?
I spent two weeks in California, photographing Carol Burnett. When I left, she said, “When you come out here again, call me and we’ll have dinner.” I didn’t call her when I came back, because I didn’t think she meant it. I saw her again in New York, and I went over and asked if she remembered me. She said, “Yes, and I know you were in Los Angeles and didn’t call me.”
Did the fact that you were Jewish ever come up in your relationship with the Beatles?
Not at all.
The Beatles did explore religion, though, particularly Indian religions. Think of their relationship with the Maharishi, who became their spiritual adviser.
An interesting thing. I was in London once and went to George’s house, and there was this unusual instrument on the wall. I asked him what it was, and he took it down and said, “It’s a sitar. But I can’t find anyone in London who can teach me how to play it.” I told him, “You can afford to bring the best sitar player in the world to London to teach you.” Next time I see him, he greets me at the door barefoot and he looks at me and says, “Look what you started.” He’d gone to India to study [sitar] with Ravi Shankar, and that’s when he became interested in Indian culture.
On the subject of culture, can you tell me a little about your Jewish upbringing?
I grew up in New York, and my Jewish upbringing was going to shul with my father. I went to Hebrew school and I was a bar mitzvah in Philadelphia, where my uncle was a rabbi. I’m Jewish by culture. I know who I am. I know who my landsmen are.
Has your Jewish background affected your work?
[Chuckles] I’m laughing because there is one very obvious incident. After he resigned as vice president, I was in a taxi with Vice President [Spiro] Agnew. I was with a reporter, and we were going from a TV studio to his suite at the Waldorf-Astoria. He asked me if I play golf, and I said “No, Mr. Vice President.” He said, “Next time you come to Washington, we’ll play.” When we got to his suite, where I was going to take his portrait, I’m looking for my Rembrandt lighting, which is good for portraits, when the reporter asked him if he really believed in a Zionist conspiracy. When he said, “Yes, I do believe that,” I quietly put away the Rembrandts and put down low lighting and shot the rest of the portraits with what I call “evil lights.”
[In another instance] I was the official photographer for the Broadway play “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” I was taking pictures of the star, Kirk Douglas, and didn’t realize it was Yom Kippur. He looked at me and said, “What’s a nice Jewish boy like you taking pictures today?” When I realized what day it was, I shot back, “What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing working on Yom Kippur?”