Is it a bird? A plane? No, it's Cory Leible, an NBC cameraman, standing on the skids of a speeding helicopter. Leible, the reigning daredevil of sports TV, is shooting those low-flying tee-to-green survey shots that he invented and that NBC shows before the golfers approach each hole. Five feet above the ground, 70 miles per hour and only a safety belt to hold him to the chopper's side. Look. Ma, no hands! Clark Kent had nothing on this guy.
Leible and CBS cameraman Herman Lang, who has also raised his craft to astonishing heights, are the closest thing to celebs in the anonymous profession of operating TV cameras. Viewers who sit in cushioned splendor before the tube often forget that somebody at the other end of their picture has to discover each shot that makes it onto the screen. Just how much we need these guys will become obvious if a long-threatened strike by Leible's union, the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, disrupts NBC's coverage of events this year. Pictures taken by executives and accountants just aren't going to cut it.
Leible, 50, almost performed his last stunt when he strapped himself to a helicopter at the 1985 Skins Game. "I like to see grass go by," he says of the survey shots, "but you need a pilot who knows how to fly low, and you can't have any wires or tree limbs around." On this trip, through no fault of the pilot, the chopper clipped a branch and plummeted toward the ground as Leible was shooting from the landing pod. He slipped under the pod and came within a few feet of being crushed beneath the copter, before the pilot righted the craft and pulled it away. Leible was seconds away from becoming the second network sports cameraman killed on the job; ABC's Pete Weiss perished at the 1963 Daytona 500 when a car rammed the scaffolding he was working on.
Leible also claims the dubious distinction of having ignored an official warning from a state bureaucracy. One Saturday in the summer of 1980. NBC showed Leible hiking around the roof of Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. By coincidence, when he arrived at the Big-A in Anaheim the following week, a letter awaited the NBC crew from California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health. No going on the roof, it said; such risky procedures violated state workplace regulations. Leible snorted and ascended to the roof anyway.
Aside from his stunts, Leible is generally considered the most accomplished handheld cameraman in the business, which is just one more reason announcers salute him on the air. In Game 4 of last year's World Series, he was the one who got the shot of two Red Sox fans scrambling beneath a van to retrieve a Gary Carter home run ball. So much for rooting interest when a fan can cop a souvenir, the shot seemed to say.
Leible was also the cameraman who noticed something odd in the sky early in Game 6 and zoomed in for a shot of the Shea Stadium sky diver. And he routinely comes up with the sensitive or ironic portrait—the baby sleeping in its mother's arms during a break in the action of an especially tense game, the quirky closeup of an icicle dripping from a crossbar, or the tear on the cheek of a cheerleader for the losing team.
Unlike Leible, Lang uses a fixed camera 95% of the time. He has made a ghoulish career of shooting crashes from his Turn 2 perch at the Daytona 500. As the cars roar by, he breaks off from the leaders and pans through the pack, where the probability of disaster is highest. Six years ago he caught two drivers. Connie Saylor and John Anderson, going airborne in two separate accidents on the backstraight.
Sports cameramen are a motley crew, coming in all shapes, ages and improbable backgrounds. They lead a hard life, living out of hotels almost year-round, but with overtime they can make a healthy salary—more than $70,000. They can even have groupies. Leible remembers the time a young woman in Baltimore offered him anything his heart desired if he would simply put her on the screen so her boyfriend back home in Wisconsin could see her. Leible says he withstood the temptation.
A sinewy former ballet student and summer-stock actor who once practiced dance with actress Lee Remick, Leible owes his career primarily to his balance. Without it, he couldn't carry 30-pound cameras up light towers or, to cite one memorable example, to the apex of the Royals Stadium scoreboard, 120 feet in the air, before a game in the '80 World Series.
Lang owes his aerial work to his small stature. A 5' 5" sprite of a man, he can wedge himself into a thousand small and lonely places, such as baskets at the end of cherry pickers or 120-foot converted fire ladders. He has also taken most of the CBS blimp shots over the years. Heights don't bother him, because he climbed mountains as a boy in Bavaria.
The common denominator among successful cameramen is that they anticipate well and listen to the commentators; handheld specialists, such as Leible, also must be fast afoot and have an especially acute eye for composition.
"Cameramen," says NBC sports director Ted Nathanson, "are a director's actors. I can live with one bad cameraman out of six. Once you get beyond that, it takes you out of the game." Leible and Lang are in such demand that the sports division usually books their services in advance, meaning they don't do as many network soap operas and news shows as other cameramen do.
How does one get behind a camera? After leaving the theater, Leible worked as a tree surgeon, owned his own construction company, and drove a Trail-ways bus, which led to a job operating a forklift vehicle on NBC's NFL games in the mid-1960s. From there he worked his way up to cameraman.
Lang, who is in his 60's became a U.S. citizen and joined the Army just before Pearl Harbor. He returned to Germany as an infantry lieutenant in the Third Army and worked as an interpreter on General George S. Pat-ton's staff. He was promoted to captain, and at one point was one of the officers in charge of a POW camp in Bavaria that contained 40,000 SS troops. He later worked as a civilian interrogator at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. "Everybody said he was just following orders," Lang ruefully recalls. Afterward, back in the U.S., Lang took a course in TV cameras and applied for a job. CBS hired him in 1951.
Lang has always had a knack for sitting in on history. He was assigned to Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person. shot Jacqueline Kennedy's TV tour of the White House and covered the Alan Shepard and John Glenn space shots, along with every quadrennial political convention and presidential inauguration since 1952. In sports he was behind the camera when Bart Starr scored the winning TD in the Dallas-Green Bay "Ice Game" championship in 1967. And he had the unforgettable shot of Jack Nicklaus hugging his son Jackie after winning the Masters last year.
Not all moments are so riveting, of course. But they're more likely to pop onto the screen when Leible or Lang is behind the camera.
Leible does his tee-to-green surveys, like this one in Hawaii, from the pod of a chopper.
Lang and Leible in a rare pose: relaxing in front of the lens.