The illuminatingPhil Hymes

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“You can’t have ‘Lights, camera, action!’ without ‘lights’,” Hymes said in an interview: he was a TV lighting director with the NBC network starting in 1951, working where he was needed: Today, Sing Along With Mitch, Your Hit Parade, To Tell the Truth, and many more. In later years, he worked on Late Night — with Conan O’Brien, then Jimmy Fallon, then Seth Meyers. But where he really made his mark was with Saturday Night Live — starting with its second season in 1976. Known for being “brutally honest,” Hymes would stop a rehearsal if he thought something wasn’t quite right: costume, hair, makeup, whatever. “He said something to Lady Gaga — something nobody would ever say to her, probably about what she was wearing, or her makeup,” says Rick McGuinness, another lighting director. “Whatever he said, I later overheard her say: ‘I love him. He tells me the truth.’”

Hymes poses with former Saturday Night Live cast member Garrett Morris in 2015. (Photo: NBC/Dana Edelson)

Hymes was also the man behind the scenes for another bit of history: he lit the Nixon/Kennedy debate. Kennedy chose to wear makeup, as is advised for TV. Nixon refused it, looked pasty and unhealthy in the harsh TV lights, and lost to Kennedy. Hymes didn’t retire until early 2018, well into his 90s, shortly before he won his second Emmy award — for outstanding lighting design for a variety series. His first Emmy was in 1965. “If I had known it would have come at this frequency,” he deadpanned in his acceptance speech, “I’d have gotten a bigger display cabinet.” Hymes died July 29 from bladder cancer at 96.

From This is True for 4 August 2019