Gary Null: A life behind the lens

Veteran NBC still photographer Gary Null displays his vintage camera collection at his home in Valencia. Dan Watson/The Signal

If you had a favorite television show on NBC during the decades of the 60s-90s, professional still photographer Gary Null probably captured images of the cast, the set and the action.

Among his photo credits are the famous 1968 “Elvis Comeback Special,” as well as two trips to Vietnam with Bob Hope and images from the sets of “Star Trek,” “Bonanza” and “Days of Your Lives.”

Born in L.A.

Null, 81, a life-long Angeleno, was born in 1937 in Los Angeles. His parents were from Iowa. His father served in the Navy and was stationed in Long Beach when he discovered the wonders of the Golden State.

“My dad called my mom and said if you want to get married you need to come out here because I’m not going back to Iowa,” Null.

Null grew up in a neighborhood adjacent to Watts, at 93rd and San Pedro. A graduate of Fremont High School, Null found his life’s work at a young age.

“It was a vocational high school,” he said. “It offered photography, auto mechanics, sewing, drafting; and I decided to take photography because someone said it was really easy.”

Null said the program was as advertised.

“We had four classes a day and we could go out on location. We could go out whenever we felt like it,” he said. “It was great. High school was easy for me.”

Null said his high school photography instructor Clarence Bach trained many Hollywood photographers, and at one time, at least six Life Magazine photographers from Fremont High School were on staff at the same time.

Semper Fi

A week after Null graduated high school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was told because of his photography training, he would become a Corps photographer. That turned out not to be in the cards.

“I was a machine gunner for a year, then I was transferred to Point Mugu (in Ventura County) as an M.P. (military police),” Null said.

With two years left in his four-year enlistment, Null submitted a request to go to a military photography school.

“I got in and went to Army photography school in New Jersey,” he said. “There were only six Marines in the school.”

Null was surprised to learn on his first day of photo school that his enlistment should have been extended six years.
“One of my classmates said, ‘Well only five years, 11 months and 29 days to go.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You had to re-enlist for six years to get this school,’ I told them I didn’t reenlist for six years and they told me I was wrong,” Null said.

After calling to check on his separation date from the military, Null was relieved to find that he had somehow dodged the required re-enlistment and would only serve until June 1959, his original separation date.

During the nine-month school, Null strived to be at the top of his class so he could get first choice of duty station.

“I was not at the top of my class, but I wanted to come back to the West Coast, so I requested (Marine Corps Air Station) El Toro,” he said.

Null again found luck was on his side and he served as base photographer at El Toro for six months until his enlistment was up.

Hired by NBC

Null began his job search for a civilian job shortly before leaving the Marines. However, in spring of 1959, he found jobs were scare.

“I decided to visit my high school photography instructor who lived in Westchester,” Null said. “He was working in his yard and I said, ‘Mr. Bach, I am getting out of the Marines and I need a job.’ He told that that NBC had just called him the day before and they were hiring.”

Null followed up on the job lead and soon found himself hired at NBC as a still photographer.

“I told them I had a month left to serve and they told me they would wait for me,” he said. “I was in seventh heaven.”

Null was surprised to discover NBC paid new hires less than what he was making in the Marines.

“I had a wife and children to support,” he said. “It was tough for a while, but it all worked out.”

40 Years at NBC

During his 40 years at NBC, Null served as staff photographer, portrait photographer and was promoted to chief photographer in 1996, two years before he retired.

Null accompanied Bob Hope on two trips to entertain troops in Vietnam. In 1965, he went on a 14-day trip at Christmas, and again in 1971. He also went with Hope to Beirut for two weeks in 1984 for “Bob Hope’s USO Christmas in Beirut” special.

Another of Null’s adventures was 1981’s “All American Ultra Quiz.” He traveled around the world for the show that starred comedians Rowan & Martin, know most famously for “Laugh-In.”

“It was a silly show,” said Null.

The show started with 932 contestants on the field at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Contestants were eliminated until the survivors met at Los Angeles International Airport to decide the finalists who boarded a chartered TWA 707 and flew to six cities to compete (Little Rock, Arkansas; Washington, D.C.; London, England; Paris, France; Rome, Italy; and Athens, Greece).

“No one watched it,” said Null. “They never did it again, but it was a nice trip around the world.”

Meeting Elvis

When Null first worked with Elvis Presley during the special (“Singer Presents… Elvis”) aired by NBC on Dec. 3, 1968. Null saw it just as “another weekend I have to work.” The show is now known as the “Elvis Comeback Special.”

“I never knew at the time that the pictures would become as iconic as they are,” said Null. “I still see them published everywhere.”

He met Presley’s manager, Colonel Parker, and Parker later hired Null to shoot Presley in Las Vegas, where he performed at the International Hotel.

“I also shot Elvis at The Forum and the Hawaii satellite special,” said Null.

The 1973 special “Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite” was the first live satellite concert with a single performer and aired across the globe.

“I was the only photographer allowed to photograph the concert,” Null said. “I’ve never seen any still photos of the concert that weren’t mine. Any shot you see of Elvis wearing a lei (and the famous white “American Eagle” jumpsuit) is my shot. All the stuff in black leathers was also mine.”

The only time he met Elvis was in Las Vegas, where Parker grabbed Null and took him up to Elvis’ suite.

“You’re going to take a picture of Elvis, Colonel Parker told me. ‘Don’t talk to him,’ he said. When we got up to the suite Elvis had a big white cape on,” said Null. “He turned to me and said, ‘Hey, man, how are you doing?’ I said, ‘Great, Elvis, how are you?’ Colonel Parker said, ‘I told you not to talk to him.’ I said ‘He talked to me first.’”

Despite the thousands of images he shot for NBC, Null has only a few prints of the work he shot, and no negatives.

“NBC owned all of my work,” he said.

On set at NBC

The first series Null worked at NBC was “Bonanza.” Null was there for nearly the entire run of the show, a Western drama that starred Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Dan Blocker and Pernell Roberts. It ran from 1959-73.

“All the shows for NBC were shot on the West Coast and I worked nearly all of them,” he said.  

Among Null’s favorite shows was “I Dream of Jeannie.”

“Barbara Eden was very nice,” he said. “I took photos of her son after he was born.”

Among his favorite actors was Angie Dickenson of “Police Woman.”

“She only wanted me and one other photographer to shoot her. She was really nice,” he said.

Living in the SCV

Null moved to Saugus in 1964. His first wife, Linda, died in 1994. They had three children, two daughters and a son. His son died in an auto accident in 1984.

Null’s hobbies include working around the house, surf fishing, traveling and his two collectible cars.

“I have a 1964 Porsche I bought 46 years ago,” he said. “I also have a 1953 MG Roadster that I’ve had about four years.”

Null said he isn’t into showing his cars, but does belong to a MG car club in Ventura.

“I like old cars,” he said. “I just enjoy owning them, tinkering with them and driving them.”

He is now married to wife, Diane, and lives in the Valencia Summit. He also has three grandchildren.

“I love the Santa Clarita Valley,” he said. “I know traffic is bad, but I still love it here.”

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