It was a shock to receive word on Saturday morning that Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson had been found dead in his Berlin apartment. As Variety‘s resident film-music writer, it was my sad duty to talk with his manager and write the story as quickly as possible. Here is that obituary. I had known him since his Oscar nomination for The Theory of Everything (the photograph of us is from a post-screening Q&A we did together in early 2015; our first interview was in late 2014) and we did a fascinating interview in late 2016 for the Directors Guild magazine that also included his longtime collaborator Denis Villeneuve; that story is here. I was a great admirer of his scores for Sicario (Oscar nominated in 2015) and Arrival (unfortunately disqualified for Oscar consideration in 2016; here is the full explanation of that). It’s been a tremendous loss for the film-music community, and the days since his death have seen an outpouring of emotion.
The composer of that unforgettable violin melody at the heart of Young Frankenstein, and so many more great scores for Mel Brooks movies, died on Thursday in New York. John Morris, twice Oscar-nominated (for co-writing the hilarious Blazing Saddles song and for his heartfelt dramatic score for The Elephant Man), had long ago retired from the business. But his themes for the movies of Brooks, Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman and others — plus a handful of major television scores including The Adams Chronicles and Scarlett — are among the most indelible of the last 50 years. His passing has brought a surprising outpouring of grief and appreciation from the Hollywood music community. Here is the obituary I wrote for Variety; we first met in the early 1990s and I last talked to him in 2006 when I was writing the program notes for a Chicago Symphony performance of Young Frankenstein and other Morris scores.
We got the sad news about Dominic Frontiere’s death through an offbeat source: a paid death notice that appeared in the Los Angeles Times. It took an entire day (including calling every funeral home in the Santa Fe area) to confirm the news, and in that time I assembled an obituary that covered the high points of his long career. Frontiere composed several classic themes of 1960s TV — including The Outer Limits, 12 O’Clock High, The Flying Nun, Branded, The Invaders, and The Rat Patrol — as well as such memorable movie scores as Hang ‘Em High and The Stunt Man. He won an Emmy and a Golden Globe and even his forgotten shows had great themes (I especially love The Immortal, Search and his miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors). Here is the obituary I wrote for Variety.
It was so sad to hear of the death of Marni Nixon, a wonderful lady with whom I’d just recently conducted a long, on-camera career history (for the Film Music Foundation, to be posted online soon). I wrote this obituary for Variety that talks a bit about her three famous “ghost singing” gigs: for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story, and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. But she was much more than that, singing (from the late 1940s on) as part of the Roger Wagner Chorale, in many classical and opera performances, and even classic TV themes (she was in the choir for I Married Joan in 1954!).
We lost a beloved figure in the Hollywood music community on Sunday. Van Alexander, the bandleader and composer who (with singer Ella Fitzgerald) wrote the jazz classic “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”; who scored dozens of favorite 1960s sitcoms as well as several cult-classic films; and who wrote a seminal work on arranging for big bands that influenced dozens of arrangers in later years, died at the age of 100. I wrote an obituary for Variety that sums up his career, but I’d also like to point you to a story I wrote about his 100th birthday party just over two months ago that shows how strongly the community felt about him. Van was not only a fantastic musician, he was a sharp and very funny guy.
Bob Drasnin was one of the last of the great composers of the classic era of TV that spanned the 1950s through the 1980s. He scored everything from The Twilight Zone and Playhouse 90 to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible. I was proud to have included excepts from all of his U.N.C.L.E. music on the albums I produced for FSM a few years ago. In his later years he was a teacher and mentor to dozens if not hundreds of film-scoring students… and he was a nice guy with great, often very funny, stories about his years in the trenches. Here is the obituary I wrote for Variety; and here is a longer, more detailed appreciation of his work.
We knew her as Sarah Johnson, the beautiful, very efficient (and gun-toting) secretary in U.N.C.L.E. headquarters on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. But after a handful of guest spots in ’60s TV, she ditched the acting career for a typewriter, penning some of our other favorite spy shows including Mission: Impossible, The Wild Wild West and It Takes a Thief. Later she wrote a number of action and adventure films (including the original treatment for guilty-pleasure blaxploitation flick Truck Turner, starring Isaac Hayes). Here’s my obituary for Variety.
Ian Fraser, whose extraordinary musicianship and good taste lent a polished, classy sound to many of television’s great musical specials, died this morning at his home after a long battle with cancer. Anyone who knew Ian adored him. He held the record for the most Emmy wins (11) and nominations (32 total) within the music categories over the years. I wrote the obituary for Variety, drawing in part on a video interview I did with him for the Archive of American Television in 2012. Julie Andrews and songwriter Leslie Bricusse, two dear friends, were happy to contribute reminiscences to an appreciation I’ve since written of this delightful and immensely talented Englishman.
This amazing player of unusual percussion instruments — especially in film scores like The Ipcress File, The Quiller Memorandum, The Man Who Would Be King and others — died recently in London. I had interviewed him in 2008 about his work with John Barry, especially the unusual sound of the theme for TV’s The Persuaders!, and wrote this appreciation of the man.
Unexpected, and very sad: The death of Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy winner Marvin Hamlisch. Anyone who knew Marvin couldn’t help but smile at his energy, creativity and sense of humor. To this day I still have his cell phone number on a Post-It next to my desk. He was so kind, giving me all the time I needed while writing the Spy Who Loved Me chapter in my Bond book; and he really liked what I had written about his clever, should-have-been-nominated score for The Informant! Here is the obituary, and here is an appreciation of Marvin’s music that I was happy to write for Variety.