One of the most celebrated cinematographers of his generation, Laszlo Kovacs was a gifted and strikingly versatile cameraman whose work embraced the visionary realism of the '60s and '70s (Easy Rider, The Last Movie, Five Easy Pieces) as well as the more glamorous look of Hollywood's past (New York, New York, Paper Moon). Laszlo Kovacs was born in Cece, a rural community not far from Budapest, Hungary, in 1933. Kovacs became fascinated by movies as a child, attending weekly screenings at a schoolhouse that became a makeshift neighborhood movie theater on weekends. Wanting greater opportunities for their son, his parents sent him to Budapest to attend secondary school, but while he was obviously bright, left to his own devices Kovacs preferred to go to the movies rather than attend class, favoring European New Wave filmmaking over the Russian and Hungarian films that were staples in local movie houses.
Despite Kovacs's weak grades, his enthusiasm for cinema won him admission at the Hungarian Academy of Drama and Film Art, where he studied under filmmaker George Illes. In 1956, during his final year in film school, a revolt spread through Budapest which threatened to overthrow the Communist leadership that ruled the country; Kovacs became one of a handful of students who used school equipment to document the budding revolution on film. Another of the young filmmakers involved in the filming was a recent graduate of the Academy named Vilmos Zsigmond; Kovacs and Zsigmond shot 30,000 feet of 35 mm film of Hungarian rebels fighting for freedom against Soviet-backed military forces, and after the revolution fell, the two smuggled themselves and their film into Austria en route to the United States. In the spring of 1957, Kovacs and Zsigmond arrived in America, hoping to sell their footage of the Hungarian revolt, but there were no immediate takers (it was later aired by CBS News as part of a 1961 special), and Kovacs took on a variety of odd jobs to support himself.
Kovacs got his foot in the door of the movie business doing television documentary work and shooting low-budget feature films such as Kiss Me Quick! and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies, and he soon began receiving positive notices for his work on Richard Rush's Hell's Angels on Wheels and Peter Bogdanovich's Targets. Kovacs's big break came in 1969, when actor and director Dennis Hopper persuaded him to shoot a different sort of biker film he was planning; the film became Easy Rider, and Kovacs's crisp but fluid cinematography helped define a new visual aesthetic in Hollywood.
Bob Rafelson then tapped Kovacs to shoot his acclaimed drama Five Easy Pieces, and several directors who had worked with Kovacs on low-budget projects worked with him again as their stars rose, including Richard Rush (Getting Straight and Freebie and the Bean) and Peter Bogdanovich (What's Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, and At Long Last Love). Through the '70s, '80s and '90s, Kovacs was steadily in demand, shooting a wide variety of box-office hits (Ghostbusters, My Best Friend's Wedding), and prestige projects with some of the leading directors of the day, including Martin Scorsese (New York, New York and The Last Waltz), Hal Ashby (Shampoo), and Cameron Crowe (Say Anything).
In 2002, the American Society of Cinematographers presented Kovacs with their highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award (he was also a member of ASC's Education Committee and Board of Directors), while the 1998 Hawaii International Film Festival, the 1998 CameraImage Festival and the 2001 Hollywood Film Festival also feted Kovacs for his body of work. On July 21, 2007, Kovacs died in his Hollywood home at the age of 74; he was survived by his wife, Audrey, and daughters, Julianna and Nadia.