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Footnotes-Tommy May


Hollywood has always been a town of legends – some authentic, some not. One bona fide character of below-the-line stardom is storied key grip Tommy May. Fondly known in the biz as “Chainsaw,” this soft-spoken, former linebacker from L.A. State began his illustrious film career in February 1955. Sworn to Local 80 as a No. 3 card, one of May’s first gigs was building wooden shooting platforms on the Walt Disney water-fest Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
Learning the ropes from keys George Rader on The Untouchables and Larry Milton on Get Smart, it wasn’t long before May was key gripping his own projects. During his first ten years in production, he worked with such D.P. royalty as Harry Stradling Jr., George Stevens, Conrad Hall, and Bill Fraker.
The nickname was earned in the late ‘60s on Paint Your Wagon. “One of the sets was made from actual logs, which Fraker needed to open up for a shot,” May says. The solution came with some “outside-the-box” thinking and a chainsaw. Tommy quickly cut the wall away. “From then on,” he continued with an impish grin, “I never did another show without a McCullough close at hand.” Those early days read like a syllabus from a classic television and film course at USC. From Gunsmoke to Gilligan’s Island and West Side Story to The Battle of Midway, May earned a master’s degree in shooting experience.
As the studio system died, Tommy graduated into the world of independents. Landing all sorts of features, he keyed such diverse offerings as Cinderella Liberty, The Presidio, and Cleopatra Jones as well as a couple of Blake Edwards’ pictures, including S.O.B., his favorite. Throughout the 1980s and into the ‘90s, Tommy May was the key grip everyone wanted. He often went from one project to another without a break. During one 10-year period, May worked more than 21 features, including The Witches of Eastwick, Postcards from the Edge, and Batman Returns (tapped for his special cable-cam flying rigs).
Amazingly, May also found time to do quality television like Hill Street Blues, Columbo, and an Emmy-award winning episode of The Twilight Zone lensed by his nephew Brad May. When asked how he survived that schedule, May responded, “sleep was optional”. Often on the cutting edge of camera movement, May was one of the originators in the use of fast ATVs as camera vehicles. He was also the first to place a Luma on top of a Titan Crane for the Peter Hyams’ sci-fi thriller 2010.
“You’re there to do a job,” May said, when asked for a few words of wisdom for today’s grips. “Do what they ask you to do!”
May exemplified this work ethic. No matter what the conditions, he always did his job without faltering. Whether sweating the heat and danger of desert work on Valdez is Coming, or enduring the muck and mire on Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans, DPs always got the shot when May was on the job. A first-rate mechanic who has worked on everything from motorcycles to helicopters, this 74-year-old veteran Naval Air Reserve crew chief today restores vintage aircraft in a Van Nuys hangar with legendary “war-classic” jockey, Matt Jackson.
At interview’s end, I asked Tommy May what drove him throughout his 80-plus feature career. With the chuckle of a man who knows something you don’t, “Chainsaw” quietly responded: “My wife, Jody. Without her letting me do what I loved, none of it would have been possible.”
Spoken like a true legend.

Written by Staff

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