Although born in Lowell, Massachusetts, to Greek immigrant parents, Tavoularis spent his entire childhood and teenage years in Los Angeles, in the shadow of the Hollywood studios. He studied architecture and painting at different art schools and landed a job at the Disney Studios first as an in-betweener in the animation department, and later as a storyboard artist. In 1967, Arthur Penn called him to take charge of the artistic direction of Bonnie and Clyde. Three years later, Penn called him once again to design Little Big Man. But it was working with Francis Ford Coppola in 1972 on The Godfather that set the creative tone of his career. The Godfather Part II and The Conversation, in 1974, consolidated their collaboration, and laid the way for what was to be their joint creative challenge: Apocalypse Now, the film for which Tavoularis created a nightmare jungle kingdom, inspired by Angkor Wat. It was also on the set of Apocalypse Now that he met his future wife, French actress Aurore Clément. (Clément's role was eventually edited out of the final cut of the film, and only restored in the Apocalypse Now Redux version in 2001.