Legends Behind the Lens: Cory Leible
One of sports TV's greatest camera operators was a daredevil with a handheld
The story of American sports television is engrained in the history of this nation, rising on the achievements of countless incredible men and women who never once appeared on our screens. During this pause in live sports, SVG is proud to present a celebration of this great industry. Legends Behind the Lens is a look at how we got here seen through the people who willed it to be. Each weekday, we will share with you the story of a person whose impact on the sports-television industry is indelible.
Legends Behind the Lens is presented in association with the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the SVG Sports Broadcasting Fund. In these trying times — with so many video-production professionals out of work — we hope that you will consider (if you are able) donating to the Sports Broadcasting Fund. Do so by visiting sportsbroadcastfund.org.
By Jason Dachman
During more than four decades at NBC, Cory Leible revolutionized the use of the handheld camera on everything from NFL sidelines to U.S. Open putting greens to presidential inaugurations. He elevated the role of the handheld operator to an art form, offering viewers a new perspective for watching live sports.
“For over 30 years, Cory Leible was a cameraman’s cameraman and a director’s dream,” says fellow Hall of Famer and legendary sports-TV executive Don Ohlmeyer. “He was in the vanguard of those hearty souls that lug around not only a handheld camera but about 90 lbs. of gear that goes along with it.”
A Long Island, NY, native and the son of a long-time vaudeville performer, Leible studied ballet and dramatics at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. It was there that he put down creative roots and developed the legendary endurance that would serve him so well as a camera operator.
“Cory had such amazing energy, stamina, and balance that his nickname was ‘Iron Legs,’” says former NBC Sports Executive Producer Mike Weisman.
After two years in the military, Leible entered the RCA School of Broadcasting in 1964 and got his first break when NBC needed vacation relief crew. Over the next two years, he worked off and on at the Peacock network in a variety of production roles, while also handling camera duty for WPIX-TV’s New York Yankees coverage.
By 1965, he had been brought on full-time at NBC and was assigned to the network’s NFL coverage in a variety of hard camera positions. The handheld camera was not yet popular for live sports production, but that was about to change, thanks to Leible and a fellow Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer.
“For over 30 years, Cory Leible was a cameraman’s cameraman and a director’s dream. He was in the vanguard of those hearty souls that lug around not only a handheld camera but about 90 lbs. of gear that goes along with it.” – Don Ohlmeyer
“[Longtime NBC director] Ted Nathanson asked if I wanted to do the handheld when another guy dropped out,” recounts Leible. “I did it, and, by halftime, I started suggesting a few ideas to Teddy. He said, ‘Cory, let’s do it. I’m going to isolate a camera to you, and we’ll see what happens.’ After that, I pretty much had free rein over anything I wanted to do with the handheld.”
He had a knack for capturing the perfect shot and would go on to cover three decades of NFL football and 14 Super Bowls.
“One of the goals of every network was to make the coverage more intimate,” says Ohlmeyer. “And Cory was one of the guys who was a real master on the sidelines. He had an instinctive presence that told him somehow where that next interesting moment was going to come from.”
Leible’s mastery of the camera reached nearly all of NBC Sports’ live telecasts, including MLB, NBA, NHL, tennis, and Olympics coverage. However, it was on the golf course that he made his most indelible mark, pioneering the use of helicopter-facilitated aerial shots for hole previews, as well as close-up ground-level shots of putts.
Leible’s reputation as a daredevil became legend. Having first strapped himself to the bottom of a helicopter at the 1972 Bob Hope Classic, he perfected the shot over the next two decades — often flying just 5 ft. above the ground.
“He always told the story,” notes NFL VP of Media Operations Glenn Adamo, who came up through the NBC ranks during the Leible era. “Whether hanging from a helicopter in golf to shoot the holes or hanging upside down at the Superdome for a Super Bowl to get a live shot [of all 22 players at once], Cory got the shot everywhere he went, and I know we were all better for it.”
The aerial shots may have garnered the most attention, but Leible’s work around the green had the most significant impact on modern golf coverage, allowing viewers to see the trajectory of the putt from ground level.
“I was criticized a lot for standing behind a golfer,” Leible says of this angle. “People said I might end up getting in the way of his line. But I never did, and that shot offered such perspective. You could actually see the golfer looking at the green with the pin in front. That shot became part of the framework of golf [coverage] after that.”
A father to three daughters and grandfather to seven, Leible resides in Southampton, NY, with his wife of 49 years, Valley. Although he may be long retired, his sense of humor and storied work ethic make him one of the most beloved characters ever to grace a live sports production.
“Cory was one of those artists who helped drive this business forward,” says Ohlmeyer. “He made the coverage more intimate and more exciting. It allowed the viewer to be brought from their home to inside the game, and it made their appreciation of the game that much better.”