...dead at age 68.
MARVIN HAMLISCH, left,
with the author after a Hamlisch concert in Bellingham, WA.
Hamlisch was a master By RON MILLER
From the time I first heard Anton Karas' zither music for Carol Reed's "The Third Man" in 1949, I'm sure I knew composing music for films was a magical art that could enhance any movie, even a masterpiece like "The Third Man." As a result, I grew up admiring film composers and, eventually, collecting their film scores on records, tapes and CD's.
Over the years, I've met quite a few of them and spent time witih them, discussing their unique contributions to film and television history, most notably the great Lionel Newman ("The Street With No Name," "Cheaper by the Dozen," etc.), Henry Mancini ("The Pink Panther," "Charade," "The Thorn Birds"), Bill Conti ("Rocky," "Dynasty") and the extraordinary man who died earlier this month--Marvin Hamlisch.
By the time I first met Hamlisch in 1975, he had already composed enough great film music to assure himself of a place in cinema history--his awesome score for "The Swimmer" (1968), his Oscar-winning re-imagination of Scott Joplin's ragtime music for "The Sting" (1973) and his two addtional 1973 Oscars for "The Way We Were," which won for Best Song and Best Dramatic Score.
The occasion of our first meeting was my visit to the set of TV's "The Entertainer," an elaborate remake of the 1960 Tony Richardson film, based on John Osborne's stage play. The locale of the TV movie had been switched from England to America circa World War II and filming was being done on the boardwalk in my seaside hometown, Santa Cruz, Calif. Jack Lemmon had assumed the leading role played earlier by Laurence Olivier on both stage and screen. The cast was truly stellar with Ray Bolger, Sada Thompson, Tyne Daly and Annette O'Toole in support of Lemmon.
Director Donald Wrye, with whom I was quite friendly, had the task of re-creating a wartime look for a very popular beach resort in the 1970s and he turned to Hamlisch to provide the proper musical background for such a time period feel. Marvin and I had lunch together at the tables set up for cast and crew on the cliffs overlooking the beautiul waters of Monterey bay.
That's when I discovered what a genuinely affable guy Hamlisch was. We just had a grand time talking about the challenges he was facing creating a musical mood for the movie that was distinctly different from the British-flavored music of the 1960 film. I came away from that interview, which was for TV Guide magazine, with the lasting impression that Hamlisch was a really humorous and witty character whose love of music was part of his soul.
Hamlisch was as impressed as I was to be in the company of the great Ray Bolger, one of the movies' immortal musical stars of the past, forever remembered by even today's youngsters for his performance as The Scarecrow in the 1939 "Wizard of Oz." I still have a treasured photo of dancer Bolger doing a high kick in his hotel room by the seashore as he demonstrated how rubbery his legs still were in his old age!
Hamlisch and I also were also impressed by the musical acumen of Jack Lemmon, who amused himself and everyone around him between takes by playing a piano that was part of the on-set decor in the real Santa Cruz home the filmmakers were using as the home of Archie Rice, the character Lemmon was playing in the film. Lemmon was a very competent pianist and often composed his own music just for kicks.
After "The Entertainer" aired in 1976, Hamlisch still had some great work ahead of him, including his score for the 1977 James Bond film "The Spy Who Loved Me" and its chart-topping song "Nobody Does It Better," sung on the soundtrack by Carly Simon; his beautiful score for Donald Wrye's feature film "Ice Castles" (1979); his score for Robert Redford's 1980 Best Picture Oscar winner "Ordinary People"; his 1982 score for Meryl Streep's Oscar-winning "Sophie's Choice" and, of course, his Tony-winning score for the great Broadway hit "A Chorus Line."
Many years later, Hamlisch came to Bellingham, WA, near my present home and played a solo concert at the marvelously restored Mt. Baker Theater. I had never heard him play piano in concert mode and I was entranced by his masterful style as an entertainer. To hear him coast through such a large volume of his own compositions was a sheer delight.
After the concert, my wife and I went backstage and I was able to renew my acquaintance with Hamlisch and pose for a photo with him, which is shown above. As before, he was a warm, friendly and gracious guy.
Marvin Hamlisch loved the Broadway theater and many of his film scores were for movies based on Broadway shows, including "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" (1975), "Same Time Next Year" (1978) and "Chapter Two" (1979). He was a favorite of many top stars who would seek him out for their projects, among them Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford and Jack Lemmon. Little wonder: His music had enhanced so many of their films.
He probably did his best work in the 1970s, creating many scores that will live as long as movies are being screened anywhere, but his work was never second-rate and he continued to work regularly in films and TV up until his death after a brief illness. He most definitely will be sorely missed by anyone lucky enough to have known him, even as briefly as I did.
©2012 by Ron Miller. The photo of Marvin Hamlisch at the piano is courtesy of ABC News. This column first posted Aug. 13, 2012.
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