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Don Paonessa, We Miss You

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

By Elizabeth Gracen:

Donald Paonessa, Beside the Hydrant

Here in the city, it always happens as soon as the first signs of spring appear. The sun is out, the air is fresh, I’m walking my dog, and I’ll notice pieces of furniture sitting abandoned at curbsides all around the neighborhood. There’s the worn out sofa, the weary old BarcaLounger, the broken leg of a coffee table. I step back and take a hard look. Is it salvageable? Can that be refinished or reupholstered? Could I mosaic the top or turn trash into treasure like I did with that discarded fireplace mantle that my mother and I encrusted with shells and crystals that one summer? If I take a couple more steps back and inspect the lonely furniture with my internal photographer’s frame, I’ll smile and think about my friend, Don Paonessa.

Donald Paonessa, Wooden Chairs

Don’s magical eye could imbue these curbside castoffs with personality and heart. He honored their existence, photographing each subject with respect and a careful attention to detail. Yep, that was Don. Gentle, patient, ever the artist. Kind and generous. I sure do miss him.

Donald Paonessa, Winnie the Tagger, Yoda Chair, Orange Storefront, Recliner Reclining, Chaise Red Velvet, Flowered Blue, Darth Vader Coach, Cat Scratch Coach, Down & Out, Coach Across Street from Church

Donald Paonessa

It’s been two years since my Highlander family got the news that Don passed away. We’ve lost too many alum from the series over the past couple of years, and I admit that I haven’t properly dealt with all the loss. It's just too hard to write about. In fact, it was Don who called to tell me that Stan Kirsch had died. I still can’t talk about that one without tearing up. These Highlander men are some of the best, most interesting people I have ever met, and Don sits at the top of the list.

Born in Mamaroneck, New York, Don was raised in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. He later graduated UCLA with an MFA in Film and continued his passion for photography and the fine art of painting.

Donald Paonessa, The Orange Hat

With a long career in film and television, he served as the Post-Production Supervisor and Associate Producer on Highlander: The Series and was instrumental in designing the visual effects and graphics for the television franchise. I was lucky to work with him when he took the director’s helm on an episode of Highlander: The Raven and again when he served as director and producer on the extensive bonus features for the box set library of the series. He loved working on the show and remained a friend to everyone involved with the show.

Donald Paonessa, Highlander: The Series - "Money for Nothing," Nicholas Lea, Elizabeth Gracen

I don’t know when I finally got the nerve to ask him to edit one of my first short films, In Between, but he didn’t hesitate to come on board. I remember being so nervous about what he would think, but my fears were quickly diffused by his easy-going manner and deft approach to the footage and vision I had for the film. He even enlisted the incredibly talented Roger Bellon, another Highlander alum, to score the film. We followed that with another short, The Perfection of Anna. When I finally retrieved the footage from the very first film I shot about drag queens in Arkansas—The Damn Deal—both Don and Roger contributed their expertise to help transform that quirky footage into something I am truly proud of.

Don & Renae Paonessa

Don acted as supervising editor on a couple of my films after that and remained a great confidant and ally in the years that followed. We'd sit in his home editing suite/painting studio and talk about everything, our rambling conversations revealing his colorful past and career. His lovely wife Renae would pop in to say hello and hug my neck. I'd sit behind him in the swivel chair and stare at his latest work-in-progress painting on the easel as he edited the films. During the pandemic, we talked often on the phone, our conversations swirling from subject to subject. He was a great friend and a true mentor to me as a filmmaker. I’m not sure I will ever find a more astute, creative guide who always gave me an honest opinion with such gentle support.

Donald Paonessa, Sharon and Rosseau

In his last years, Don devoted time to the painting studio, and it was impossible for me to entice him away to work on film again. His love of painting, with an eye for a photo-realistic style, is ever apparent in his oeuvre. He loved to make political statements, but his canvases are filled with mysterious faces and stories. "It's all about the narrative . . . ," he said, his work always illusive and curious.

Donald Paonessa, Floating at the Springs

Donald Paonessa, Overland, Bowling Night, Tail O the Pup, Café de Paris

Donald Paonessa, Highway 395 Revisited

Donald Paonessa, Wetheads

Don was one of the great ones. His loss was huge for so many people.

Not long ago, I made a call to Renae to ask if she needed anything after Don's passing. My phone contacts were obviously mixed up, because when Don's voice came on to ask me to leave a message, I took a quick breath and stammered . . .

"Don? Oh . . . , Don. I miss you, friend. We all do."

Donald J. Paonessa


Elizabeth Gracen is the owner of Flapper Press & Flapper Films.

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