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Legendary Emmy-Winning Composer Earle Hagen Dead at 88

Posted in News on May 27, 2008

Earle H. Hagen, Emmy-winning composer of some of the most memorable musical themes in television history, died of natural causes Monday at his home in Rancho Mirage, California. He was 88.

Hagen wrote the popular themes for The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Danny Thomas Show, I Spy, That Girl, The Mod Squad, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and many more. He composed original music for more than 3,000 individual television shows during his tv career, which spanned more than three decades.

He was also active in the film business, mostly as an arranger and orchestrator for 20th Century-Fox. He received a 1960 Oscar nomination (shared with Lionel Newman) as musical director for the Marilyn Monroe film Let’s Make Love.

Hagen composed the jazz standard “Harlem Nocturne.” Written in 1939 for big-band leader Ray Noble, the mellow tune went on to be recorded by Charlie Barnet, Les Brown, Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Ray Anthony, Ted Heath and many other bands. It eventually became the theme for the “Mike Hammer” series in 1984.

He was an author and educator, penning one of the first how-to books for aspiring film composers and later leading the film-scoring workshop for BMI for a decade in the 1980s and ’90s.

Hagen was born July 9, 1919, in Chicago but moved to Los Angeles as a youngster and began playing the trombone while in junior high school. A proficient player by the time he was 14, he began writing modest arrangements for his school bands and, graduating early from Hollywood High School, went on the road playing with big bands at the age of 16.

Hagen played trombone with the Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey bands in 1937 and 1938, joining the Ray Noble band in 1939. For Noble, he not only played trombone but also became one of the band’s top arrangers.

He became a staff musician for CBS in 1941, performing on various radio shows, then enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1942. It was during his wartime stint as part of the Radio Production Unit in Santa Ana, Calif., that he gave up playing and became a full-time arranger, writing for the unit’s 65-piece orchestra. He also, during his off-duty hours, began more intensive study of music with classical composer Ernst Toch.

Also during the war years, he began to write arrangements for movie musicals, including Cover Girl for Rita Hayworth at Columbia; and afterwards, for popular singers including Frank Sinatra, Tony Martin, Dick Haymes, Frances Langford and others. Several record labels — including Mercury, MGM, Decca and RCA Victor — sought out Hagen’s services.

Alfred Newman, the music director at 20th Century-Fox, liked the orchestral arrangements Hagen had written for Majestic Records and, in late 1946, signed him as a contract arranger and orchestrator for Fox. There Hagen spent several years working on dozens of films — mostly musicals — including With a Song in My Heart, Call Me Madam, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and There’s No Business Like Show Business.

Hagen left Fox in 1952 and formed a partnership with fellow arranger Herbert Spencer. Together, they launched the Spencer-Hagen Orchestra, which recorded albums for RCA and Liberty; more significantly, they began writing music for television series.

Beginning in 1953, they scored Make Room for Daddy (later re-titled The Danny Thomas Show) and Where’s Raymond (later The Ray Bolger Show). The format of both comedies required the composers to write and arrange music before shooting; for Hagen to conduct the band on-stage during production; and to create the underscore later, during post-production.

Several weeks into production on the Thomas show, Hagen met director Sheldon Leonard. The two became fast friends and, when Leonard began producing his own tv shows, Hagen was his primary composer. They worked together for nearly two decades; co-owned the music publishing firm that controlled the music of several of their shows; and took a round-the-world trip together scouting locations for Leonard’s adventure series I Spy.

The Spencer-Hagen partnership broke up in 1960. Subsequently Hagen wrote the themes and much of the underscore for many Thomas- and Leonard-produced series, including the Griffith and Van Dyke shows; spinoffs including Gomer Pyle, USMC and Mayberry RFD; and other shows, including I Spy, That Girl, Accidental Family, My Friend Tony, and others.

For The Andy Griffith Show, Hagen not only wrote the folksy tune but can be heard whistling it on the soundtrack. It, along with the big-band Dick Van Dyke Show theme, the elegant That Girl and the driving theme for The Mod Squad, remain iconic musical moments for the small screen.

Hagen became television’s leading composer of the 1960s and 1970s. His other series included The Bill Dana Show, Rango, The Guns of Will Sonnett and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. He contributed music to, but did not write the themes for, such other shows as The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Eight Is Enough and The Dukes of Hazzard.

For I Spy, which was shot on location around the world with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, Hagen produced his most colorful scores, often flavored with the ethnic music of the Far East, Mexico or the Caribbean. Hagen received Emmy nominations for all three seasons of the show and won for the “Laya” episode in 1968.

His final work for television was on the Stacy Keach “Mike Hammer” movies Murder Me, Murder You and More Than Murder, which led to the weekly series; and on the Griffith show reunion movie Return to Mayberry in 1986.

Hagen wrote three books. “Scoring for Films,” which for many years was the only available textbook on how to handle the technical aspects of writing music for movies, was published in 1971. It was an outgrowth of a private study group he held in his home for composers interested in learning the techniques of film scoring (an avid golfer, he “charged” for his services by asking students to bring three dozen golf balls).

That study group ultimately became the more formal BMI film-scoring workshop, an eight-week course that Hagen ran beginning in 1986. Hagen wrote a second how-to book, “Advanced Techniques for Film Scoring,” in 1990, and an autobiography, “Memoirs of a Famous Composer (Nobody Ever Heard Of)” in 2002.

Hagen won BMI’s Richard Kirk Award, a lifetime achievement honor, in 1987; its President’s Award, for teaching the workshop for a decade, in 1996; and its Classic Contribution Award, for his iconic themes and lifetime of mentorship, in 2006.

In October 2007, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences presented him with a special award at an event in North Hollywood “for his pioneering work and enduring contributions to television music.” And on April 20 of this year, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (the New York-based “other” TV Academy) inducted him into its Gold Circle for 50 years of service to the television industry.

“Earle Hagen, his heart and his music will always be one of our most precious assets in the composing community,” said BMI President & CEO Del Bryant. “He gave willingly of himself to mentor, educate and inspire. His legacy is global and his music will forever be a part of the fabric of television and movie history. He created a path that has enabled many of our television and film composers to create successful, long-lasting careers for themselves. Our hearts go out to his family. His passing is a loss to us all.”

BMI Film/TV Relations Vice President Doreen Ringer Ross noted that, “In addition to being a brilliant, successful composer, Earle has consistently been a generous mentor and gifted teacher in his community. He was a loyal and true friend with a biting sense of humor. Earle nicknamed his most recent BMI honor ‘The Last Man Standing Award.’ He will be deeply missed.”

Hagen’s wife of 59 years, the former Elouise Sidwell, died in 2002. Survivors include his second wife, the former Laura Roberts; two sons, Deane Hagen and James Hagen, both of Palm Desert, CA; three stepchildren and four grandchildren.

Funeral plans are pending. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, www.mhopus.org.