“Marlon Brando Sucker-Punched Me”: A Paparazzo Shares His Best Stories

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John F. Kennedy Jr, 1980Photography by Betty Burke Galella © Ron Galella

From days-long stake-outs to getting a restraining order from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Ron Galella recounts some of the most unforgettable moments of his career

What makes a legend most? Some say glamour, others scandal – or, in the case of Ron Galella, the ‘Godfather of Paparazzi’ who captured Hollywood’s most illustrious stars over a decades-long career, both.

The Bronx-born, first-generation Italian-American got his start in the early 1950s working as a US Air Force photographer during the Korean War, and took the lessons he learned on the frontlines straight to Hollywood. Armed with two cameras – no bag or coat – Galella would jump fences, crash parties, don disguises, and spend countless hours on stakeouts – all the while enduring threats, humiliation, and even violence for the opportunity to snap celebs.

Infamous for his legal battles with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, he was spat at and punched by Sean Penn; had his tooth knocked out by Richard Burton’s bodyguard; his tires slashed by Elvis Presley’s bodyguards; hosed down by Brigitte Bardot’s security; banned from Studio 54, twice; and caused Elizabeth Taylor to hiss, “I’m going to kill Ron Galella!”. It was all in a day’s work for the fearless paparazzo, who was willing to risk it all to get the shot.

Now 88, Galella has just published a new book Shooting Stars: The Untold Stories, a photographic memoir – including 22 tips for aspiring paparazzos from the man who knows. Here, on a call from his home in New Jersey, Galella recounts some of the most unforgettable moments of his career.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

“The most bizarre thing I ever did was stake out Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. They had a yacht moored in London on the Thames which they visited on weekends. They stayed at the Dorchester Hotel; I staked them out there as well. Richard was drunk and attempted to sock me but Liz held him back. I became friends with a Portuguese sailor. He told me about a party. I went to a nearby warehouse Friday at 4pm and gave the watchman 15 dollars to lock me in until Monday morning. I went to the top floor, shielded the window so they couldn’t see me, and waited. My greatest picture is them putting up curtains to give them privacy on the yacht. The tourist boat never saw them, but I did.”

Jane Fonda and Roger Vadim

“I read that Jane Fonda gave birth to her daughter Vanessa at Belvedere Hospital outside Paris. I went to her room and the door was partially open. Jane sounded like she was taking a shower so I left. The next day, when she left the hospital, she asked, ‘are you the guy who was at my door?’ I said, ‘no’. I didn’t want to be accused of invading her privacy. I got pictures in front of the hospital, then I got in my friend’s car. Vadim knew we were following close behind so he drove over 100mph on the highway with Jane and the baby in the passenger seat! I think he tried to lose the paparazzi because there were at least three cars following – but then they got to the villa, and posed for photos to get rid of us.”

Marlon Brando

“Marlon Brando was a guest on the Dick Cavett show. After the taping I followed them to Chinatown. When they got out of the limo, I got about 10 shots walking. Then Brando called me over and asked, ‘what else do you want that you don’t already have?’ I said, ‘well how about a picture without the sunglasses?’ and Brando sucker-punched me. He knocked five teeth from my lower jaw. The funny part is my paparazzi germs infested his knuckle and he almost bled to death. I wondered why he punched me because he never knew me. I later found out that in the original manuscript of his autobiography, he said he had an affair with Jackie in 1965 at the Carlyle Hotel. He sympathised with her.”

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

“People think that Jackie was my enemy because she said I invaded her privacy, she feared me, I harassed her – but that’s all bullshit. My pictures show that she smiled into my camera, even when I broke the injunction. On September 24, 1969, I went to stake out Jackie and the doorman told me she and John Jr. were in the park on bicycles. I got two great shots of them on coming down the path. Jackie recognised me and said, ‘oh, it’s you again’. She told a secret service agent, ‘Mr. Connelly, smash his camera’. But he didn’t. She wanted the film so she sent two other agents after me. They took me to the police station and gave me a summons for harassment. The judge dismissed the case because I countersued that I was being harassed!”

John F. Kennedy Jr. (lead image)

“The reason Jackie said, ‘smash his camera,’ is because she didn’t want John in the papers. Later, there were two trials, same judge in both. I faced seven years in jail or a $125,000 fine so to get out of this, I gave up photographing Jackie, John, and Caroline forever. John was a normal guy. Me and my wife Betty were staking Jackie one afternoon, and John came out of the park. He said, ‘you’re waiting for my mother’. I said, ‘yes’. He said, ‘she’s out of town’. In 1995, he launched George magazine. I had to get written permission because I was under a restraining order. I gave him pictures and he thanked me. He signed an agreement saying I could photograph him at public events. He always treated me well.”

Shooting Stars: The Untold Stories by Ron Galella is out now.