He was one of the legendary sound engineers in the business and was nominated 11 times for an Academy Award. Richard Portman, the accomplished engineer and sound mixer, has died in Florida at the age of 82. While nominated for an Oscar 11 times, he did win one for his work on Michael Cimino’s 1978 Best Picture winner; the brutal and haunting The Deer Hunter.
Hailing from Los Angeles, Portman looked, early on, to follow in the proverbial footsteps of his father Clem who was a sound mixer of serious note having, himself, been nominated for Academy Awards. Clem Portman was noted for his work for the 1960’s television series, The Fugitive, where he worked on dozens of episodes. Prior to that gig, however, Clem had made a serious name for himself in Hollywood working the sound on dozens of films which included King Kong (1933), Citizen Kane (1941), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
When Portman left the Marines, though he remained a hippie at heart, he landed his first gig in 1957 at Columbia Pictures and also worked for ten years at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio. He eventually ended up at Robert Altman’s Lion’s Gate production company during the 1970’s. He worked well with Altman on such films as, California Split (1974), Nashville (1975), 3 Women (1977), A Wedding (1978) and Quintet (1979).
In addition to working on The Deer Hunter, The Godfather, Young Frankenstein, and George Lucas’ Star Wars, Portman also worked the sound on such films as; Little Big Man (1970), Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), Harold and Maude (1971), The Getaway (1972), The Last Detail (1973), Silent Movie (1976), Starting Over (1979), Splash (1984), L.A. Story (1991), The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), The Pelican Brief (1993) and Gloria (1999).
Portman retired in 1995 and headed home to Florida to teach sound engineering at Florida State University. In 1998, he told the Tallahassee Democrat that, “I’m a teacher now and I’m happy. I get to be young again with my students. If nothing else, Florida State will have the only film school in the nation where directors learn sound from the start. That’s never been done. When I came along, and we needed something, we just invented it ourselves. But this is soon going to be the finest film program in the country. You wait and see. Gosh, I suddenly sound like a good advertisement for the FSU film school. But it’s true. You can write that down.”
His long time teaching assistant at Florida State, Mamie McCall, pretty much summed Portman up when she stated that, “In action, Richard was truly an acrobat of dexterity in front any mixing board. Watching him work like this mad scientist, a symphony conductor but in high speed, was so mesmerizing but intimidating I silently realized I’d never be so amazing as him, that I went in to VFX as camera instead! Now I understand, no one was like him or ever would be.”
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