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February 22: The Spicy Meatball Photographer

February 22, 2015

20080220081433Howard Zieff, a college dropout who learned photography while serving in the Navy and went on to create two of America’s most iconic advertising campaigns — “You Don’t Have to be Jewish to Love Levy’s,” and the Alka-Seltzer commercial in which an actor eats far too many spicy meatballs — died at 81 on this date in 2009. Zieff also directed Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin and eight other films. When he began his career in the 1950s, he said, “Everyone was blond and perfectly proportioned; I didn’t want that.” And so, according to his New York Times obituary, he “roamed in search of ordinary faces for his famous Levy’s Jewish Rye shoots: the American Indian, a Chinese man and a black child. ‘I saw the Indian on the street; he was an engineer for the New York Central... The Chinese guy worked in a restaurant near my Midtown Manhattan office, and the kid we found in Harlem. They all had great faces, interesting faces, expressive faces... faces that gathered you up.’ ”

“Zieff turns movie conventions around the way Buster Keaton used to. There’s no condescension or caricature in Zieff’s eye for faces... getting their qualities across in a few glimpses. He knows where your eyes will go in a shot and he knows (from directing commercials) how to get everything in.” —Pauline Kael