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HBO's Smash His Camera re-pictures paparazzi potentate

In hot pursuit: Ron Galella closes in on Jackie Onassis. HBO photos

Clearly they were made for one another -- legendarily private Jackie O and relentless shootist Ron Galella.

HBO's 90-minute, never dull Smash His Camera, premiering Monday at 8 p.m. central, draws its title from her directive towards him. He eventually sued her for harassment and she successfully counter-sued to keep him at least 25 feet away from her.

Yet his intrusive lens often captured Jacqueline Onassis "at her most fetching," notes iconic gossip columnist Liz Smith. So one wonders whether she at least asked herself privately, "Where's Ron?" on those rare occasions when he was nowhere to be found during their 15-year game of cat and mouse. "My Mona Lisa," as Galella proudly puts it, is his shot of Jackie glancing in his direction while preparing to cross the street. Her windblown hair partially obscures her face, which in fact has a bare wisp of a smile.

Jackie O died in 1994 but Galella, 77, is still clicking. The self-anointed "paparazzi superstar" admittedly is a dinosaur these days, still using a dark room and his trusty old cameras in times when cell phone photography is the new state of the art.

Most press agents -- "they're like gestapo," he says -- remain wary of any encounter between Galella and their clients. But a current-day Robert Redford doesn't seem to mind the old white-haired gadfly. Redford willingly lets Galella snap a few pictures of him after an invitation-only function. He also accepts a copy of Galella's latest coffee table book.

A grinning Robert F. Kennedy Jr. likewise accommodates the old family antagonist during a recent encounter.

"How old are you?" he asks.

"Seventy-seven. Still going," Galella replies, chortling.

"You're too old to hide in the bushes now, though."

"Nah. The gold is in the files."

Galella has some three million images at his disposal. A good many of them are of celebrities trying to wave him off -- which is gold. Marlon Brando didn't mess around, though. He broke Galella's jaw with a single punch while out on the town with Dick Cavett after taping his talk show. The photographer lost five teeth, too -- and of course let the world know about it. He wore a football helmet the next time he encountered Brando. And he has someone else's pictures to prove it.

It only takes one. Woody Allen, Michelle Phillips and Al Pacino.

A TV news account during his heyday described Galella as "a parasite, a personality profiteer. Galella's life is filled with rejection."

Famed photographer Neil Leifer, whose work has regularly appeared in Life, Time and Sports Illustrated, still regards Galella as a "bottom-feeder" whose "tactics are despicable."

But Leifer now seems churlish in this assessment. Andy Warhol's favorite photographer mastered the art of catching celebrities by surprise -- and thereby as themselves. Oftentimes he hid, sprung and snapped. His obsession with the glamorous and famous -- mom named him after heartthrob actor Ronald Coleman -- yielded a treasure trove of images while also serving as the carbon footprint for TMZ and the like. Except that Galella had a certain amount of class in comparison.

In his dotage, he's been married for 30 years to former magazine editor Betty Burke. She indulges his lifelong love of rabbits and seems to love him unconditionally.

So Galella gets his quintessential happy ending -- as documented by director Leon Gast -- while many of the celebrities he photographed were not nearly so fortunate. Such is life.