Leo Friedman's a friendly guy, the kind who's on a first-name basis with everyone.
Everyone from Barbra (as in Streisand) to Sammy (as in Davis), from Elizabeth (as in Taylor) to Richard (as in Burton). There's Hank (better known as Henry Fonda). Everyone, that is, except for Miss Hepburn. As in Katharine.
As a Broadway photographer, Friedman worked with a veritable who's-who of showbiz legends in the '50s and '60s, capturing magical moments from such stage classics as "My Fair Lady," "West Side Story," "Hello, Dolly!" and "Fiddler on the Roof."
But the final Broadway musical Friedman photographed -- "Coco," which starred Hepburn as fashion designer Coco Chanel -- proved a particular challenge.
"She didn't want to talk to me. She wanted her Hollywood boys to shoot the pictures," Friedman recalls. But show officials told Hepburn, "You gotta take him."
So Friedman did his job, photographing the cast -- including the Oscar-winning star -- in action.
The following weekend, Friedman's phone rang. It was Hepburn, who told him, "You're damn good, fella."
Replied Friedman: "Would you repeat that, please?" She did, after which Friedman quipped, "It sounded better the second time."
It has been more than 40 years since that particular telephone conversation, but Friedman still relates it with a showman's knock-'em-dead flair.
And why not? You can take Friedman out of New York, but you can't take New York out of this particular Broadway baby, who's still going strong at 91.
Whenever Friedman wants to revisit his former stage haunts, they're as close as the garage of his southwest Las Vegas home, which doubles as a gallery for dozens of iconic images.
On one wall, there's Laurence Olivier as "The Entertainer," a fading music hall comic. ("I never saw acting like that in my life," Friedman recalls with awe.) There's Bette Midler making her Broadway debut in "Fiddler on the Roof" as one of Tevye's daughters. "West Side Story's" Romeo and Juliet, Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert, dance down a grimy New York Street.
On another wall, Streisand trades matching grins with her dog. "My Fair Lady's" arrogant professor Henry Higgins (alias Rex Harrison) looks down, literally, on London flower peddler Eliza Doolittle (Julie Andrews). "Music Man" Robert Preston imagines the booming sound of "76 Trombones." Lucille Ball struts her stuff as "Wildcat," while future Oscar-winners Jane Fonda, Liza Minnelli and Robert Redford shine in early showcases. From Mary Martin ("The Sound of Music") to Carol Burnett ("Once Upon a Mattress"), Friedman's garage -- crammed with framed Playbills, magazine layouts and album covers -- charts a booming bygone era on the Great White Way.
Other photographs, however, trace the various roles Leo Friedman has played through the years.
There's little Leo, sharing a baby carriage with his baby sister. Grown up now, he's in a World War II Army uniform.
Other images recall two real-life Broadway characters who changed Friedman's life.
One is actor William Gaxton, a former vaudevillian who starred in such Broadway hits as "Of Thee I Sing" and "Anything Goes."
Another Gaxton musical, 1936's "White Horse Inn," featured a 16-year-old kid in the chorus line: Brooklyn-born Leo Friedman, who heard about the audition at a dance class and was hired, in part, because of his frizzy hair. ("You cut your hair, I cut your pay," one of the show's officials warned him.)
"I told 'em I was 12," Friedman admits -- which prompted plenty of people to ask his mother, " 'How can you let your son go out with showgirls? ' "
Gaxton, however, became Friedman's closest friend from "White Horse Inn," frequently inviting his young castmate to his 45-acre Connecticut estate.
"It's like he adopted me," Friedman says. "He was my best friend of all time -- he was fantastic."
But while Friedman was destined to spend many years on Broadway, he wound up on the other side of the footlights.
And for that, Friedman has Mike Todd to thank.
A producer on Broadway and in Hollywood ("Around the World in 80 Days"), Todd hired Friedman as a $12-a-week office boy -- when another employee infuriated Todd by refusing to bring him a sandwich.
During the 1939 World's Fair, Friedman demonstrated his theatrical savvy by dreaming up promotional stunts, such as attaching cutout images of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee -- with the slogan "Gypsy Rose Lee is Stuck on Me" -- on visitors' backs. (Naturally, Lee and Friedman became friends; during World War II, she wrote to him, making Friedman the envy of his GI buddies. "Can you imagine how popular I was?" he says.)
Todd, impressed by Friedman's pizzazz, bought him a camera, built him a darkroom and promoted him to photographer -- at $25 a week, complete with an expense account.
Not that Friedman knew anything about photography.
Sometimes he loaded the film backward. Sometimes the film came out blank. Yet Todd never fired him.
Eventually, Friedman learned -- especially after he got his chorus-girl pals to pose while he practiced photographing them and processing the shots.
During World War II, Friedman kept taking pictures -- briefly going AWOL to get pictures of Gen. George S. Patton's arrival in Munich.
Following the war, Friedman returned to his native New York and freelanced for various magazines -- Life and Look among them -- before partnering, in 1957, with portrait photographer Joe Abeles to specialize in theatrical photography.
Abeles handled in-studio portraits; Friedman concentrated on production photos -- and, in the process, enjoyed a front-row-center perspective on the era's plays and players.
Friedman remembers Burton with particular affection.
"Ah, that's my boy," Friedman says, gazing at a picture of the actor in an acclaimed performance as William Shakespeare's Hamlet.
"At breakfast, I'd be having ham and eggs," he says, "and he'd be drinking beer."
Friedman also recalls Burton's equally legendary wife, Elizabeth Taylor -- whom he first focused on when Taylor and his old boss, Mike Todd, were honeymooning on the French Riviera. (At the time, Friedman was there to shoot pictures of French sex kitten Brigitte Bardot.)
Years later, after Todd died in a plane crash and Taylor married Burton, Friedman arrived in Toronto, at Burton's invitation, to take pictures of Taylor's backstage birthday party.
"Elizabeth runs right up to me and says, 'You're the only photographer who asked for permission to take my picture,' " Friedman says. "I never thought of it that way," he muses. "I was just doing the right thing."
Perhaps because of that friendly, straightforward approach, Friedman can think of only a few performers who left a negative impression.
Rex Harrison, for example, was "a pain in the neck -- a grouchy old guy when he wasn't onstage," unlike "My Fair Lady" co-star Julie Andrews, whom Friedman describes as "very easy -- very, very nice." And Maurice Chevalier tried, unsuccessfully, to smooth things over with Marlene Dietrich, who never liked Friedman, he admits. "I have no idea why," he told Chevalier. "Every time she sees me, she says, 'No pictures.' "
These days, Friedman still takes pictures, but he has much more cooperative subjects: his grandchildren, 4-year-old twins Emmerson and Oliver.
Friedman and his wife, Doris, 74, have been married 44 years; their son Eric is a Southern Calfornia-based film editor. Pictures of Eric, as a youngster, hang in the garage alongside Friedman's showbiz family.
But Emmerson and Oliver have a corner all their own, on a wall inside the house.
"This is what Leo photographs now," says Doris. "The children."
Contact reporter Carol Cling at email@example.com or 702-383-0272.