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The Sunday Telegraph

Acceptable in the Eighties: the man who captured the decade of no taste

The big, brash, and beautiful stars of the decade that taste forgot found their perfect muse in photographer Mario Casilli

Watching television in the late Seventies, your state-of-the art, four-button remote control would likely have flicked between popular family shows in The Brady Bunch mould. The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie and Happy Days – all were filled with japes, capers and gentle family rivalry, providing lightly worn life lessons that espoused traditional roles and values. The characters might have had hopeless infatuations, or squabbled with their siblings, but disagreements were quickly resolved and the protagonists were always the better for it.

Then, on April 2 1978, everything changed. With its mix of wealth, power brawls, seduction and scandal Dallas was the first show to document the dastardly side of family affairs. Jealousy, kidnap, murder, alcoholism – all were fair game for the CBS saga, and such was its success that 350 million viewers tuned in to see who shot J R in November 1980.

Keen to get a piece of the action, rival stations turned out their own versions. Dynasty, which first aired in 1981, charted the lusts and back-stabbing of the Carrington family, who dressed in diamanté for breakfast and stilettos for sunbathing. Detective shows soon got in on the act – Miami Vice with its shiny suits and shiny cars; and Knight Rider, whose four-wheeled hero’s leather interior matched perfectly its driver’s jacket. This was a world where size of ego came second only to size of hair, and the stars of these shows gained an aura that spilt over into everyday life.

It was a California-based photographer named Mario Casilli who brought this new, flamboyant world to our attention. Working for glossy entertainment magazines like Playboy and TV Guide, the American weekly whose celebrity interviews, gossip pieces and listings almost single-handedly ensured the success of programmes like Dallas and Dynasty, the Cleveland-born Casilli’s larger-than-life portraits embraced the ostentation of the decade.

Once little known outside his circle of ex-subjects, his photographs have been collected together for the first time in a new book. “Many photographers of the time would eschew the ‘over-the-top’ Dynasty glamour look, wanting a more simple naturalistic approach,” says Joan Collins, in her foreword to the book, “but not Mario. He absolutely adored the ‘dressing up box’.”

With a reputed costume budget of $35,000 a week, Linda Evans, Stephanie Beacham and Joan Collins never wore the same costume more than once, so the photographer certainly had his work cut out for him.

His trademark look came from clever lighting and a series of eye-popping backgrounds. His easy-going approach to shoots – “Mario fed me, chatted away and photographed me in a fluid and continuous motion,” says Collins – led to recommendations in other circles. Soon, Casilli was photographing musicians like Barbra Streisand and Dolly Parton, and even, at one point, Hollywood stalwarts such as Bette Davis and Kim Novak.

With the arrival of the Nineties and the pared-down, Calvin Klein aesthetic, Casilli’s supercharged look was no longer in vogue, but he continued to photograph from his southern California studio, alongside teaching at the Art Center in Pasadena, right up until his death in 2002. And as Dynasty and Dallas drew to a close, Casilli helped his stars transition to their new, sleeker selves. He photographed Collins, for example, punching through a large image of her nemesis ex-husband, Blake Carrington. “Perhaps for him [Casilli] that image symbolised the rise of the super-powerful woman in the Eighties,” says Collins, “the woman he so loved and helped to create.”

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10 Nov, 2013 Lucy Davies