A young Hector Ramirez behind his Norelco camera on the set of All in the Family
Ramirez behind the Steadicam on Dancing With the Stars
Ramirez shooting live on the dance floor at Dancing With the Stars
Decades of high-quality work as a camera operator launched the late Hector Ramirez into the stratosphere of Emmy winners.
He is third on the list of most Emmy nominations for an individual, with 75. He won 19 Primetime Emmy awards, starting with his first in 1986 for the CBS special Neil Diamond... Hello Again. He won his last Emmy in 2016 for Dancing With the Stars and was nominated for the last time in 2021 for his work on America's Got Talent. He also won a Daytime Emmy in 1978.
Ramirez began his career in local Los Angeles broadcasting before becoming a camera operator on All in the Family and working on other iconic '70s programs such as The Carol Burnett Show. He was a camera operator for televised events such as the Super Bowl XXXV Halftime Show, which he called "a very intense fifteen minutes of work," David Copperfield magic specials and a wide array of awards shows. When reality television exploded in popularity, Ramirez was there with his Steadicam, working on American Idol and dancing along with the contestants of Dancing with the Stars. While most of his career was spent in television, he had a notable digression into movies with the 1984 cult classic This Is Spinal Tap.
Ramirez died in January 2023, and is survived by his wife, Alma, and son, Dana. He was interviewed in May 2011 by Beth Cochran.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I spent my first twelve years in Bogotá, Colombia, and then my family came to the United States, to New York. We came because of the civil revolution in Colombia in the 1950s.
Q: What was making the transition to New York like?
A: For me, total culture shock. I couldn't speak the language at all.
Q: How long did it take you to learn English?
A: I don't know if I have learned yet! But it took me about a year and a half. I remember arriving in New York on August 11, 1956. In September, I started going to school.
Q: What were your teenage years like?
A: They were fun, but hard. I had to work. I was the oldest of all my brothers. My father was killed during the revolution. So we were here with our mother, and I had to go to school and work to help the family.
Q: What were your hobbies when you were growing up?
A: Photography. Always. I was that guy that took all the family pictures at weddings and birthdays.
Q: What did you do after graduating high school?
A: A friend of mine and I just got up one morning and decided, "Let's go to California for the summer." I never went back. Instead, my family came out. We've been here ever since.
Q: How did you end up going to the Don Martin School of Radio and Television in Hollywood?
A: I was going to Glendale College. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. A friend asked me what I knew about this trade school, and I said I had friends who work in television that went there. He said, "Why don't you meet me there on Saturday?" I went and waited; he never showed up. The person at the school said, "Let me show you around anyway."
I saw the guys working with the cameras and decided maybe this is a good thing for me. I went back the same day and told my mom, "I'm going to leave school." She was like, "What are you talking about?" I said, "I found something else that I want to do." So I started going to Don Martin's School of Radio and Television.
Q: What was the focus of that program?
A: It was all broadcasting: radio, television, announcing, but I focused primarily on television. We learned about lighting, the workings of the camera, the technical end of it. And at the same time, we learned the art of the camera: how to frame, how to focus, how to move the camera around.
Q: What was your first professional job in television?
A: One day, the director of the school came to me and another fellow because he knew we could speak Spanish. He said there was a new bilingual television station coming to Los Angeles, KLXA, and they're looking for people who can speak English and Spanish. I worked there for a couple of years.
Q: What did you do there?
A: Everything from sweeping the floors to building sets, to lighting, to camera. I remember a half-hour news program where I did everything myself: I was technical director, audio guy, camera guy, tape guy. One man doing it all. That's how you learn.
Q: What did you do after you left KLXA?
A: I did a couple jobs for KTTV and then went to KTLA. That's where I started doing camera for bigger productions. All the specials, Johnny Mann's Stand Up and Cheer, the Steve Allen and Dinah Shore talk shows. I was there for about a year, then I went to ABC.
Q: When did you start working as a camera operator for CBS?
A: After I did a summer replacement stint at ABC from 1970 to '71, I got hired at CBS in '72. This was the Rolls-Royce of networks. I was nervous. I remember the first time they called me and said they wanted me to go up to Stage 31 because they were thinking about putting me in as a summer replacement on All in the Family. I'm thinking, "Oh my God. This is the number-one network show." I went up, did my testing and started working on All in the Family.
Q: What were the cameras you were using on that show?
A: Norelco. CBS was all Norelco cameras at the time.
Q: How was the show shot?
A: It was shot in front of a live audience. We would come in on Thursday and the AD, Gary Shimokawa, would sit with the four cameramen and give you all the shots for your individual cameras. Then we'd go out to the stage. The cast and the director would be out with us. No cameras. We were just standing there in our positions. And then the cast would go through the play, and we would just watch. The director would just point to us or say, "This is you; this is you; this is you." Then we'd get on camera and do it two, three times.
Q: How did adding the live audience affect shooting?
A: It affects the timing. When you're rehearsing, you try to simulate what the timing would be for the audience. The writers and producers try to give you an idea of how much time to wait for a laugh. But you can never anticipate what an audience will do. That was the challenge. That goes for any kind of live show. You never really know exactly what's going to happen until you do it.
Q: The series was known for close-ups of the actors.
A: There was a certain philosophy Norman [Lear] had about what the show should look like. If there was a laugh, there was a close-up. And Archie [Bunker] was not only funny because of the script, but with the faces that he did. Carroll [O'Connor, who played Archie Bunker] was a physical guy. That was very important to Norman.
Q: How did you end up on The Carol Burnett Show?
I was replacing somebody there. Once you replace somebody, sometimes they like you and want you to stay. That's what I did with Carol Burnett .
Q: How was shooting a variety show different from a weekly sitcom?
A: A variety show has totally different requirements. Now you have to incorporate music. I love music. I had a good feel for it. The directors would tell you to do something, and they would look at your shots when you're doing the music — whatever can enhance the performance visually. Because at that moment, you're the one that dictates how this is going to look.
Q: On The Carol Burnett Show, there was a lot of laughter, a lot of flubs. Were you encouraged to capture those bloopers?
A: Oh, yes. That show had an incredible cast. Everybody at CBS would go down to the dress rehearsals, even the people in the office. Tim Conway and Harvey Korman had bets on who would make the other guy laugh first. I wish more people could have seen the dress rehearsals. They were so funny.
Q: Do you have any specific memories from the show?
A: The classic one is the last-minute thing Carol did with the curtain rod from Gone with the Wind. That was unbelievable. [Director] Dave Powers couldn't talk. Nobody could talk. It was edited down for air, but it was at least a half-hour of laughter.
Q: How did changing technology affect the way these shows were being shot?
A: In the mid-'70s, technology gave way to smaller cameras and changed the way we did everything. Now we could go on location more easily. We could do handheld shots. We could put cameras way up where we couldn't put them before.
Q: You worked with David Copperfield on quite a few of his specials. What are some of the challenges of shooting a special that involves magic tricks?
A: David wanted to use the new technology: remote cameras and remote cranes. There was a remote crane that came out of Paris called the Louma Crane. When David wanted to do his show on the Great Wall, he didn't know how to capture what he wanted to do. We did a test with this Louma Crane. There are many challenges to doing a magic show. They're not tricks; they're illusions. He always corrected us. He's making you see things that are not there; or not letting you see things that are there. I did fourteen shows with him, and he never revealed anything. Technically, that's probably one of the most challenging things that I've done. It was very difficult for lighting, for cameras, for everybody.
Q: Let's talk about the Super Bowl Halftime Show.
A: They are a thing all to themselves. The logistics are quite extraordinary. We go in, usually a week before, to set up. After that, the field can't be used until Thursday because they're painting it. Wednesday we'll do some rehearsal at another location. Thursday night is the first time we can get on the field. Now we have to figure out how we're going to bring all this equipment onto the field, in six minutes. When they go to commercial, we have to have all the equipment ready. We do a rehearsal with the jibs, cranes, wireless cameras, Steadicams; then, on Sunday, everything is staged when the first half is going on. Halftime comes, we go to commercial, they blow a whistle and it's pandemonium. I wish people could see it. It's maybe three or four hundred people pushing the stage out, getting all the equipment, getting everything plugged in. Then you're on the air, and then you've got to get off and do the reverse. It's a very intense fifteen minutes of work.
Q: You've done many, many awards shows throughout the years. What are the key elements to shooting a live awards show?
A: The thing about an awards show is you have to know the stars and their relationships to other people that might be important to the show. So, at the Oscars, if Natalie Portman wins for Black Swan, I need to know who's related to Natalie Portman, as far as the movie's concerned: the director, the producer, the writer. It's hard to prearrange stuff like that because you never know what someone's gonna say.
Q: When did you start using the Steadicam?
A: Back in the mid-to-late '70s when Steadicam first came out. I was a crane operator for many years. I've done every type of camera there is. When you growup on network shows, you do everything: pedestal work, handheld work. I came to CBS at a time when CBS started adding remote production. I was one of the youngest guys there, and I had a lot of [teachers] — the older camera guys took me under their wing. But they were also hesitant about trying new things. So, when handheld came out, it was, "Let the kid do it." I wanted to do it. I always had a fascination with all these cameras, so they gave me the opportunity to learn. I started doing Steadicam at CBS, and I've been doing it ever since.
Q: On a show like Dancing with the Stars, how close are you to the dancers with the Steadicam?
A: Probably about five to six feet. Sometimes I'm closer, depending on the shot.
Q: You received a lot of Emmy Awards and nominations for Dancing with the Stars. Can you talk about the Emmy you received for "The Steadicam Tango"?
A: The director, Alex Rudzinski, called me and said, "I have this idea to do a whole dance on just one Steadicam. Are you up for it?" Of course. I'm always up for a challenge. It was a tango designed strictly for the Steadicam. One shot, live, four minutes long, with two couples. It was very intricate. We came in one day, set it up, worked on it for a couple of hours, did one rehearsal with the orchestra. The next time we did it was live on the air.
Q: Did you approach that differently than when you are just doing shots intermittently?
A: Yeah, I had to memorize the whole choreography, where I had to go, what speed I had to go. Sometimes I went in between them; sometimes I went around them. The timing was very precise.
Q: What's your opinion of reality shows?
A: Reality television, other than the voting part, is a variety show. It has sparked a lot of work for us and given us a chance to bring back variety. I enjoy it. I've had a great career. I've had tremendous fun. I've been places, done things that I couldn't imagine being able to do. And I've met people I would never have had the opportunity to meet. I'm very thankful.
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: Just as a guy that worked hard. And who took great pictures.
The contributing editor for Foundation Interviews is Adrienne Faillace.
Since 1997, the Television Academy Foundation has conducted over 900 one-of-a-kind, long-form interviews with industry pioneers and changemakers across multiple professions. The Foundation invites you to make a gift to the Interviews Preservation Fund to help preserve this invaluable resource for generations to come. To learn more, please contact Amani Roland, chief advancement officer, at email@example.com or (818) 754-2829.
To see the entire interview, go to: TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
This article originally appeared in emmy Magazine, issue #10, 2023.