George Spiro Dibie: An Appreciation for the Emmy-Winning Cinematographer (Guest Column)
George Spiro Dibie was an irrepressible, once-in-a-generation leader whose warmth and good will touched the lives of all those who knew him. Many will remember his 20-year legacy as president of Local 659 and Local 600 as one of breaking barriers, fighting for better working conditions and working with the IATSE to improve the benefits of membership and build union power. During his tenure, the local grew from 1,600 to 6,500 members. As Local 600’s executive director, I was privileged to be his partner in what turned out to be an 18-year odyssey.
It was a a wild ride in which the only constant was change. Just as George redefined how to light sitcoms, he reinvented the concept of what a cinematographers’ local should be. He brought a spirit of openness and in doing so broke two major barriers. Under his leadership, Local 659 opened its roster to a growing non-union workforce that was undermining the Basic Agreement and other IATSE contracts.
Second, George led a movement to increase the union’s power by not allowing the producers to pit local unions around the country against each other; he spearheaded the merger of Locals 659 in Hollywood with 644 in the Eastern Region and 666 that had jurisdiction over the Midwest. It took 10 years, but in 1996 the IATSE International merged the three locals into Local 600, its first national local — increasing its power and the voice of Local 600’s membership.
The merger was very contentious, but George‘s good will and good works brought together leaders and members of all regions. With his charm, wit and conviction, George was able to keep a seventy-five member National Executive Board on track. He and former Local 644 President Sol Negrin became close friends and collaborated on lighting workshops and membership trainings across the country. George recruited famed cinematographers Allen Daviau, Roger Deakins and Vittorio Storaro which gave the program instant credibility. He also invented the Kodak Awards which provided camera operators and assistants the chance to test their skills as cinematographers.
In negotiations, while George would poke fun at the producers’ attorneys across the table to defuse the tension, he was unbending on issues of principle such as the mandatory staffing of camera operators. As early as 1997, he put Local 600 at the forefront in the battle against long hours, when he proposed weekend turnaround, increases in daily turnaround and hefty penalties for the invasion of turnaround and meal penalties.
In 2001, George broke another barrier. With his expertise in digital cinematography, he played an instrumental role in the negotiations of the the IATSE’s landmark Digital Agreement. As a result, Local 600 added two new job classifications, the Digital Imaging Technician and Digital Utility, now mainstays of the camera crew. George’s real baby, though, was his proposal to raise the base of the Individual Account Retirement Plan to a percentage of scale wages. In 1996, the IATSE agreed and made it happen, giving members with longtime careers a huge boost to their retirement savings.
George was a character bigger than life. He was a PT Barnum-like promoter. He could have made a living as a comedian and enjoyed making people laugh. He loved his craft and he loved people. He was incredibly generous and delighted in entertaining friends, particularly when he could treat them them to a four-course lunch at Carnevale, his favorite restaurant.
As a five-time Emmy Award winner and 12-time nominee, George was the perfect ambassador for the Local. His crews loved him, the IATSE, sister locals and producers respected him and his personality won him friends throughout the industry.
Many of George’s closest friends were among the hundreds of members and students he mentored. He was never too busy to answer a technical question, help a member through hard times or recommend a mentee for a promotion.
I was amazed how quickly he struck up conversations with complete strangers. On flights from Los Angeles to New York, he would frequently befriend passengers sitting with him or even those he met in the aisles. He would proudly tell them he was a director of photography in Hollywood. After explaining what a director of photography does, he’d ask if they had seen Barney Miller, Murphy Brown or the Ten of Us etc. Then he’d tell them he worked with Barbara Streisand On A Clear Day and “she liked the smell of my cologne.” By the end of most flights, he had made three or four new friends.
I talked to George the week before he died. He told me he had fired his “FF” (bad) doctor and hired a new one. “I’m feeling better. Maybe we can go Carnevale for lunch,” he said.
There will never be another George Spiro Dibie, but he has left us with so many lasting memories.
Bruce Doering is the former executive director of Local 600.