An Interview with Alexander Courage by Dirk Wickenden
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/No.79/2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Dirk Wickenden
The name of Alexander Courage will of course be instantly recognizable to you as the composer of one of the most well known theme tunes for an American television series. But on this side of the final frontier, what else is there to tell about the recently-retired Sandy Courage’s life and career? What stories does he have about his work for the musicals in the Golden Age, and his orchestrations and arrangements for Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams and others?
Do you come from a musical family?
My mother and my father both had different ideas about who in their families were musical. My father, who was born in Scotland, told me that his father played in a band. I was taught to play the bugle. Then I wanted to learn how to play a cornet and my father managed to get one, I learned to play the scale and started to play tunes on the thing and became a sort of cornettist. My father was a typical parlor – Edwardian era baritone, who sang ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘The Battle of Stirling’ and things like that and I learned by ear how to accompany him.
On the piano?
In fact, my whole early life was a lot of being the bane of piano teachers because I wouldn’t play what they wanted me to. I wanted to play Sousa marches and things like that. My uncle had a boys’ camp at Pennsylvania and, about 1932 or so, when I was twelve, a new camper came in named Bobby Brecker. He had been to New York with his parents and seen a show there called THE BAND WAGON with Fred Astaire and his sister Adele, and he knew all the songs of THE BAND WAGON. So he played all of these and I learned how to pick out the tunes with one finger and play what then used to be called a “graveyard bass”, which had no chords, just sort of “thump” with the fist in rhythm with whatever the tune was your right hand was picking out. That’s really where I got my start as a show pianist and little did I know, that I would one day be writing arrangements for Fred Astaire in a movie called THE BAND WAGON. It’s really, really, really spooky in my life, how things like that have happened.
Can you tell me something about your musical education?
My father was in the insurance business. He worked for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and went from salesman to assistant manager to manager, and he would get transferred every three years. So I would go to a new school every three years and during this time, I had learned to play the cornet, I was still banging around on the piano, and I was getting very interested in symphonic music by ear. Also I switched, first from the cornet to a trumpet and then from the trumpet to a French horn because, in my first high school, there was a French horn sitting in the music room. I would go in there after school by myself and just fool around with it and before I knew it, I made an audition and I was chosen as the first solo player of the New Jersey All State High School Orchestra, which consisted of about two hundred and fifty kids, among them twelve horn players.
So, with this horn business, I took a few theory lessons and was admitted to the Eastman school, where I was supposed to be a composer because by that time, I’d written a couple of little nothings. I had met a girl (here we go, my whole life revolves around several girls) – I had met a girl who was in the New Jersey All State High School orchestra, she played viola and she also played trombone and I immediately started writing a symphony for her. So I was sitting there in French class, in my last high school, when the teacher came around and caught me not doing the assignment that we were supposed to be doing and she said “what are you doing?” and I said “I’m writing a symphony”. Needless to say, from there on out, I never had to do anything and that’s why my French is so terrible.
At Eastman, which courses did you take? Did you study orchestration? Who were some of your tutors at Eastman?
I went in as a composition student and I didn’t really know what to do, I had never done anything like this. I had never sat down and really, under supervision, written anything. Whatever I wrote was sort of scribbled out. You know, little themes that sounded like the Dvorak Cello Concerto and so I was studying composition now and I had to write exercises and I’d never written any exercises really before. I managed to fail Composition 1. I failed Composition 1 again the second year because I still didn’t know what to do, but I was so amazed to be in this place where there was so much music around all the time, that I was constantly going into the library and picking up piles of scores and taking them into a practice room and reading them on the piano. My piano teacher, a very dear fellow named George McNab, said “well, if you don’t practice what I ask you to practice, what do you play when you go into those rooms?”, so I started out faking my way, which was the usual thing, through the beginning of ‘Petrouchka’, which, you know, is ridiculous.
But anyway, in the meantime, I got the conductor bug and the teacher of conducting at Eastman was a really dear man named Paul White, who was an excellent violinist and a fine conductor and had composed some light music and so I became not only a pupil of Paul White but also a friend of the family.
Any other tutors?
I was sort of flitting around on the outskirts of Eastman and because they didn’t really know what to do with me, I became a horn major in my junior year. The horn teacher was a fabulous Russian fellow named Arkady Yegudkin, who had carried his formerly rich wife, during the revolution, on his back down to the Black Sea and managed to get on a boat and come to New York, where he became first horn of the New York Symphony and eventually ended up in Rochester. Yegudkin stories are legion. He understood that I really wasn’t practising the horn, even though I was playing third horn in the orchestra. He was very nice about it, he gave me all passing marks and I read the newspapers for him every morning, before my lessons, because he couldn’t read – English at least. Then the last year, I finally got through Composition 1 because I had a different teacher, a man named Edward Royce, who was the son of Josiah Royce, the famous New England philosopher. Edward Royce, the composition teacher, really didn’t care that much teaching us composition. He’d written a few light works and what he really, really liked to do because he had memorised it, was to recite ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ (this is all true, believe me!). Another fellow and I, who had not done our lessons, would cajole him into reciting ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ again, so that we wouldn’t have to show him anything, I finally managed to graduate from Eastman, having done all kinds of things under the sun, including a certain amount of conducting.
In my junior year, which was 1940, in January or February of that year, Serge Koussevitzky (conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) came through Eastman looking for possible people to be scholar shipped into the Berkshire Music Festival at Tanglewood. I had an audition with him, which was memorable – I was twenty, I really didn’t know anything about anything but I could fake through, you know, the Brahms First or something like that, even with the wrong bass note, which he pointed out. So I actually was in Tanglewood in 1940, with Lenny Bernstein and Richard Bales and the other fellow from Ohio, Thor Johnson, and it was a tremendous experience.
I’m sure it was.
Now let me get to something that’s really important. When I was at Eastman in my junior year, an absolutely spectacular blonde named Doris Atkinson appeared in the school and something clicked and she was actually, it turned out, a year older than I. She’d been sent back to Eastman by her parents, in order to get her away as far as possible from California, where she had a boyfriend that they didn’t approve of. We became inseparable. She had never seen snow (being from California) in the streets before and she slipped and broke her ankle and was in a cast. Her parents came to Rochester to celebrate Christmas with her and we met and we became friends. She went back to California and I stayed and finished my school-work and we corresponded and she said to me in one letter, that I “must come to California, you’ll like it here, it’s very easy, all you need is a tuxedo and a tennis racket”, So I started working for fifty cents an hour, made a little over a hundred dollars and, as soon as I had graduated I hopped a ride to California. They were very dear to me and I found myself a room at a boarding house, not too far from where they lived, in their rather palatial home. Mr. Atkinson had built a huge, fantastic house in Bel Air that was, in its day, the greatest of the Bel Air houses.
So through Doris, I met one day a man named Herbert Spencer, who came up to the Bel Air house with his wife Diana and we became friends, He was the chief arranger at 20th Century-Fox and he told me that Edward Powell, who was the chief orchestrator for Alfred Newman, was looking for a young, cheap orchestrator that he could recommend to a man named Adolph Deutsch, who had quit Warner Brothers and was now going to be doing a radio show with Hedda Hopper.
In the meantime, one of the fellows that I had been in the band with at March Field during the war, was married to Harriet Crawford, who was the number two music copyist at CBS radio in Hollywood. I met Harriet, who introduced me to Wilbur Hatch and that starts a whole new chapter.
Whilst in the Army, you composed scores for its dramatic radio programmes; were there any actors or personnel who, like you, went onto careers in the entertainment industry?
Before we get into my career, as it were, I have to go back slightly and say that while I was in the service, whilst I was in the band at March Field as a horn player, I started writing and we started doing a monthly radio show from March Field; this is a very big airfield, it’s still there in Southern California. There was an English fellow named Peter Packer, who was the chief scriptwriter for these shows and later on, found a career writing for Irwin Allen (you know, of the disaster epics). Whilst I was still there at March Field, I went through a sort of Russian period, where I had found a record of the USSR Band and Chorus, doing Red Army songs, so I transcribed three of them for band and we played them and they were successful. I took them to Washington, when I went to the Army Music School there, in order to become a band leader. My last understanding about them was that the US Navy Band had picked them up and was playing them somewhere. That was my first real piece that actually did work.
Could you tell me anything about your first radio jobs after leaving the armed forces?
When I got out of the army, I was now going to start writing music somehow and so I started while living in my parents’ rather crowded apartment. I started writing arrangements of big tunes for big orchestra and all that sort of thing. I went up to CBS, to meet Harriet Crawford again and she introduced me to Wilbur Hatch. “Bill” was the number two man in the music department of CBS radio. The man who was the head of the whole thing was an incredible fellow named Lud Gluskin (somebody said that his name sounded like “the last drops of water going out of a bathtub drain”). Anyway, Bill and I became friends and he gave me actually the first job, which was two weeks of writing for a half hour western radio show – I think it was called ‘Cherokee’ or something like that – because the man who had been doing it was on vacation. So after coming out of the army and spending six or seven months writing these things, I suddenly found myself with 3 radio shows to do, each week. One with Bill Hatch, who was doing ‘The Screen Guild Players’ and needed an orchestrator. The other one is because I took Eddie Powell’s advice and went to see Adolph Deutsch at his house and he took me on because I was eager and cheap, as his orchestrator for ‘The Camay Soap This is Hollywood Hour with Hedda Hopper’. The other one was Lud Gluskin, who didn’t write a note but who was a terrific, pushy businessman; he had three different Frenchmen who worked for him and they would finally get fed up with the whole thing and go back to France. So all of them were gone and he said “Hey, kid, how would you like to do Sam Spade?” and there I was doing three radio shows a week, each on a different night and writing the whole thing at night, in my parents’ apartment and somehow getting them done. That went on through the winter. The next summer – you know, everything went off in the summer – I worked in various capacities on a show of the ‘Camel Cigarette Mystery Theater’, with Peter Lorre and started out as the orchestrator, then became the orchestrator-composer, then became the orchestrator-composer-conductor.
You were “in”.
So then I thought “I’m on my way” and then the next year, nothing happened, Adolph didn’t get any work and I didn’t get that much work and I was being very depressed and suddenly, a marvellous thing happened to Adolph. Adolph Deutsch, who had been born in England, had come over to this country in his early twenties and had done a huge amount of work on Broadway and with dance bands in New York, including Paul Whiteman and people like Roger Wolfe Kahn. One of the things that he had done in New York, was an Irving Berlin show called ‘As Thousands Cheer’. A rather high up man at MGM had remembered that Adolph had been the conductor and arranger for that show. They needed an extra or another arranger-conductor for musicals at MGM and he had recommended Adolph to Mayer and the rest of them, so they took Adolph on. Now the reason he left Warner Brothers before that, where he had done some of the very large adventure pictures, ACTION ON THE NORTH ATLANTIC, THE MALTESE FALCON and things like that, was because he never got any recognition for his work on these big pictures. Everything went to Steiner and Korngold and so he had quit, by golly.
Now, he was hired at MGM to do nothing but musicals and a couple of small little nothings, here and there – very nice but small. He ended up getting four Oscars for various jobs on musicals, some of the best. He wanted me to go along with him, so I went to MGM and the first thing that I did there was a samba for a sort of military style band, playing on the dock, as the ship sails for South America in a picture called LUXURY LINER. So that was the beginning at MGM and, while I was there, I also met the brand new star of the music department, André Previn. André had just turned eighteen and had just finished the score of his first full composition job, on a picture with Jeanette Macdonald and Lassie (THE SUN COMES UP). But he was the up-and-coming everything and André and I became good friends. We palled around together, along with his girlfriend. We’re still friends, you know, from 1948 to 2001 and occasionally I do a little bit of work for him, when he needs something orchestrated in a hurry. But, I’m afraid that’s gone now because I’m not supposed to work anymore.
Have you any special memories of Adolph Deutsch? Do you consider him your mentor?
He was a very dear, talented man, who was terrifically proper and he was a car buff. When I first met him (it was right after the war), he had a pre-war Jaguar Mark 5 drop head, of which he was very proud. I am an inveterate photographer – I have pictures of everybody in every car they ever owned and all that sort of thing. I have a picture of Adolph Deutsch suspended in the air, as he jumps rope on the beach and that kind of thing. So we became fast friends and (I was) sort of a son to him. Adolph was a very meticulous man, especially as regards music and since I had never been particularly meticulous, I learned a great deal about getting down and finding all the little minute details that are so important.
Have you any specific details of your work with him on such musicals as SHOW BOAT and THE BAND WAGON?
They were the most marvellous experiences that anyone could ever have. Adolph’s dear mother had died in the snowbound eastern United States and he said he’d have to go back there and see to her funeral and so forth, “so I’d like you to do ‘Life on the Wicked Stage’ for SHOWBOAT”, which was the first time I’d ever been allowed to write the arrangement and orchestrate it myself, on my own, and it all worked out quite nicely. Before that, Adolph had done all the arrangements and made a total, complete sketch which I would orchestrate from and so, SHOWBOAT was a lot of fun. I got to do some of the source music, you know, the little high steppers and things like that.
On THE BAND WAGON, a very interesting thing happened. Because of that big ballet at the end (the Mickey Spillane take-off), Adolph, Connie (Conrad) Salinger, Roger Edens and Arthur Schwartz, who had written all of the songs for THE BAND WAGON, were all huddled together, working out this ballet for Astaire and Charisse. What they did was assign all of the sort of “hem-stitching”, as we used to call it, all of the bridges and the this and the thats and the so forths, to me, so I got to do all of that on my own and it was a great opportunity.
What about SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS and FUNNY FACE?
In SEVEN BRIDES, of course, there was that incredible number for the boys and the girls, the barn raising and Adolph did that. Saul Chaplin, so far as I know, didn’t do really anything, even though he shared the music credit. I did get to do a few things, a couple of chases on my own.
On FUNNY FACE, of course, that was really something, because Fred Astaire did this incredible little number with the cow and his umbrella and his raincoat, pretending to be a matador. So they needed a pasodoble and since I was the only composer-arranger in town that had ever been to a bull fight, I was assigned to write a pasodoble for Fred Astaire.
Speaking of that, last year, the Television Academy came to the house and interviewed me for half a day, about this and that and at the end of this whole thing, they said “We’d like to ask you what you are proudest of, in anything that you’ve ever written” and I said “I’m proudest of the fact that I did a pasodoble for Fred Astaire”. I also did that crazy little thing, Joe’s jazz dance, where Audrey dances with the two fellows in the smoky cellar in Paris. When the two of them are sitting at the table having their argument, the dance is still going on with the fellows. So I wrote, just for the heck of it, since all of this was supposed to be in the fifties, some musique concrete, which was a great rage in Paris. I made Schoenberg-type rows out of everybody’s name – Roger Edens, Adolph Deutsch and Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire and made them into scales, by lining up the alphabet with numbers and then the numbers with notes. The whole thing that’s going on, that nobody will ever hear because it’s all under dialogue, was a total, total twelve tone piece, just for the heck of it. Anyway, the most marvellous lady in the world was Audrey Hepburn, absolutely.
What can you tell me about some of the musicals you arranged and orchestrated, that Deutsch did not work on, such as KISMET, PORGY AND BESS, MY FAIR LADY and DR. DOLITTLE?
KISMET, PORGY AND BESS and MY FAIR LADY were all with Andre Previn and also I did a little bit of work on GIGI because I had been working at Fox on THE SUN ALSO RISES. f got back to MGM just in time to do one thing, in Maxime’s, on GIGI. DR. DOLITTLE was when J was at Fox and DR. DOLITTLE has something to do with STAR TREK.
Were you involved in pre-recording for the musical numbers performed on-screen?
Yes. I did most of the arrangements, I did one thing of KISMET, I did a great deal on PORGY AND BESS, I did a great deal on MY FAIR LADY and I did most of DR. DOLITTLE. In fact Lionel Newman, who was the music director and the head of the department at Fox at that time, was very dear and gave me a joint music director credit with him on DR. DOLITTLE.
Dirk Wickenden: Of all the musicals you worked on, which were some of your most fondly-remembered and why?
Alexander Courage: Of all the musicals I worked on, THE BAND WAGON, FUNNY FACE, MY FAIR LADY and, even though it was a resounding flop, DR. DOLITTLE, because that was an enormous, enormous job.
Does your involvement with a composer for a particular film start once he has finished writing or before?
My involvement with the composer as an orchestrator means there’s absolutely no involvement whatsoever until the sketches arrive here at the house and I start writing. As my dear old friend Arthur Morton used to put it, I start transferring, let’s say Jerry Goldsmith’s sketch from the white sketch paper to the yellow score paper and that’s really all that it amounts to, if you’re working with a composer who gives you a complete sketch, of which you change nothing. You just put down what’s supposed to be put down, with no mistakes please, and everything transposed properly and that’s it. If there’s anything that looks ambiguous on the sketch, you spend a little time working it out yourself or at least I do before I call anyone and say “listen, what’s going in bar fifty-four?” So, it’s just a matter of transferring to the orchestra paper from the sketch paper.
Have you ever been credited as orchestrator for a composer who was what we know of as a “hummer” and in actual fact done the work yourself?
Let me say, that I have been extremely lucky and I have never worked with a hummer – well, I wouldn’t do it anyway. Every person I’ve ever worked with as an orchestrator – there is a list of more than a dozen and myself, when I’ve given things to other people to orchestrate – has always been an absolutely full sketch, down to every note for the third trombone. So, hummers are a breed apart, as far as I’m concerned – I don’t know any orchestrators, actually, who have worked with hummers and so I really am not an authority on the subject.
How much work have you typically done as an orchestrator?
When I first got to MGM, which was 1948, one of my friends that I had made, was a marvellous French arranger named Leo Arnaud who did a picture as a composer there, called SOMBRERO and I orchestrated it for him. He said to me, (he was a very wise man as far as money went) “you keep track of everything you do, every cue that you write, what the cue number is, how long it is, how many pages you did, put the dates down”, so I started doing that. I have three books now and everything that I have ever written, from October 1952 to last year, is included in these, including all the television work, everything. Once I got started with it, it just became a habit. I did make a list of all of the composers that I have worked with over the years as an orchestrator only and they include Wilbur Hatch, Adolph Deutsch, Hugo Friedhofer, David Raksin, André Previn, Lyn Murray, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Cyril J. Mockridge, Leith Stevens, Alex North, John Mandel, Laurence Rosenthal and Johnny Green. Incidentally, I could spend a whole afternoon telling you Johnny Green stories, which are wild, wonderful, and hilarious sometimes – fantastic man.
Do you consider the role of orchestrator to be misrepresented?
It depends, since I was very fortunate to have worked only with people who gave me complete sketches. When I gave a sketch to an orchestrator, as I said, it was always complete.
How do you feel about being most well-known for the original STAR TREK theme?
I love being famous for something and the last thing that I ever thought that I would be famous for, would be the theme from STAR TREK. That whole story is in the book, which is really the only proper, complete and authoritative book on STAR TREK, which was written a few years back by Herb Solow, who was the head of production at Desilu at that time, and Robert Justman, who was the line producer of the series. It’s called Inside ‘STAR TREK: The Real Story’. We spent a couple of good afternoons here at the house, gathering material about my whole problem with Gene Roddenberry and his business dealings, shall we say. What happened, actually, is that I have to go back to my first, dear friend in the business, who was Wilbur Hatch. Way back in the days of radio, when Bill Hatch was the number two man at CBS and Lud Gluskin was the number one man, Lud grabbed all of the prize shows and gave the sort of secondary stuff to Bill. Bill was given a radio show called ‘My Favorite Husband’, and the principal actress was a down on her luck, sort of former showgirl named Lucille Ball; the show started to become a success, so all of a sudden her new husband, this Cuban band leader, decided that he should be on the show too. So they sort of got rid of the fellow who was playing the husband and the next fall season start, there was Desi Arnaz. The show became a huge success on television, much to the unhappiness of Lud. Bill went on as Desi and Lucy became Desilu and became sort of the head of a kind of almost non-existent music department, but he recommended me, I guess with a whole bunch of other people who got recommended, according to the book, to write a theme for this new series of Roddenberry’s. I wrote a theme and what it consisted of, was a fast moving underneath track and above that, a long, melodic thing that soared up into the sky; I wrote it out and I was taken by Bill to meet Roddenberry and I played it for him on the piano, which was next to impossible and he liked it and that was it, it turned out.
Any more specifics about your pilot score?
I got the job, I did the pilot and when we recorded the pilot we had a marvellous lady named Loulie Jean Norman, who was one of the background singers around town, who could do anything (she did a lot of work on PORGY AND BESS, that nobody knows about) and so she was in the mix, to make a thing for the melody, that was not quite of this world sounding. At the end of the first recording, they were talking about the sound effect of the ship going by. I said, “listen, it’s not going to hurt you if we try this. Put the screen on, with the ship going by and give me a microphone”. So I just stood there and as I saw it go by, I just went (makes a drawn-out noise of exhalation) and that’s what ended up in the television show. Also, I took Roddenberry into a recording studio here in town one evening, with about five musicians and we made musical sounds that were then fooled with, for all of the sounds on the alien planet in that strange first episode, the pilot – that’s what you’re listening to when the elevator doors open or when the wind blows or of things like that.
Anyway, I got along famously with Gene and I did another pilot for him called POLICE STORY (no relation to the later series with a pilot score by Jerry Goldsmith), which never sold and that was it, until it was obvious, after I did a couple more shows, that it was not going anywhere and you probably know all about what happened. It’s all in the book I’ve been mentioning, about the letter writing campaign and the picketing campaign that kept the show on, that got three seasons out of it and then disappeared, for about, I don’t know, three, four years or whatever it was and then, of course, the rest of the story everybody knows.
By default, Gene Roddenberry is credited as co composer, simply by the fact of composing lyrics for the melody, which were never actually used. I never looked at a piece of paper, I’m very bad about this and apparently in my first contract with that show, there was a flier attached, saying that if he should write a lyric to anything of mine that I composed on the show, that he would share a credit and half the royalties on that, used or not. So I found this out one time, when he called me and very profanely told me that he wasn’t making any money out of this show and goddamnit, he was going to collect half my royalties on the theme from thereon and I got the same letter from this god-awful attorney he had and that was it.
I understand you were very angry when this happened. How did you feel about it then and what about now? Presumably it is now just “water under the bridge” as they say?
I can’t say that I really am too unhappy about it. Gene was a strange sort of fellow and he had taken a lot of credit where it probably was not due. I guess I’d already written the theme but I did the whole score for that pilot of STAR TREK in a week, which was typical. I was doing two to three, hour long television show scores a week at Fox and this was slipped in between whatever else I was doing and so, it was a whole different way of writing and thinking. I would imagine that once I quit the show, I was persona non grata around there and so I was never asked to do anything after that -I couldn’t anyway because I was still doing an enormous amount of television at Fox. Of course, I had no prescient abilities, nor did I realise that if I had worked on the STAR TREK thing and used the theme constantly through the show, I would have made considerable more money.
This is where DR. DOLITTLE fits in?
I Quit the show because I told Gene, “it’s not going anywhere, Gene” or words to that effect, “I’m very busy at Fox” because at that point at Fox, with Lionel Newman, I was working on what was reported to be the grandest, most marvellous and greatest musical extravaganza ever put on the silver screen, which turned out to be DR. DOLITTLE and it was, you know, a mess. Arthur P. Jacobs had started out begging André Previn to allow him to represent André as a publicity man for no fee, just so he could get started. Then ending up the biggest publicity man, in Hollywood at least, because he ended up representing the principality of Monaco. He was now doing his second movie, the first was something called WHAT A WAY TO GO and now; he was given what was then a huge amount of money, a sixteen million dollar musical. As far as he was concerned, it was going to be the biggest thing (that) ever happened and you don’t do that with something that’s as small, dear and delicate as the DR. DOLITTLE stories, which I grew up with. Anyway, I went back to Fox and worked on DR. DOLITTLE, with my joint credit that Lionel gave me and we got nominated (for an Academy Award) but we didn’t win because Alfred, his older brother, won for CAMELOT.
Have you any reminiscences of your work for such television series as those of Irwin Allen and WAGON TRAIN and THE WALTONS?
WAGON TRAIN is a long, sort of union story from Universal, THE WALTONS I inherited from Jerry Goldsmith, who started the whole series. I did three of them when he was busy the first year, including one done totally in Hungarian music. The second year, my dear old friend Arthur Morton had been Jerry’s orchestrator for quite a few years and he was doing WALTONS when Jerry was busy writing and then when he would start orchestrating, I would pitch in. So he called me and told me, at the end of the second year, that he couldn’t do any more WALTONS – would I do the last episode? I did and then during the summer, he went off to England with Jerry and I was doing some other stuff at Lorimar, who were the producers of THE WALTONS. Before he got back, I was asked to do THE WALTONS, period, which created an embarrassing situation for a while. Anyway, it was not my doing, I actually turned it down but Jerry and the people at Lorimar said that was going to be it and I had nothing to say about it, they wanted me to do it and that was that!
You have mentioned before that you considered your music for Arthur Penn’s THE LEFT HANDED GUN “too extreme” – why is that?
André Previn had recommended me to Fred Coe, who was the producer of THE LEFT HANDED GUN and so, I wrote an original score for it. It was a rather strange assignment. I think my problem as a composer for regular adventure, what-have-you, dramatic films, other than musicals, was that I really was too much of a maverick. I never really was wise enough to write something that everybody would be happy with. I had to write something that I thought was different and that’s not the way it works in this here town and I was not very bright in doing it that way. The general way out here, as I’m sure you understand, of writing a score for a film, is that you get to run the film and try to get some ideas and of course, now everything is totally different. I’m talking about back there, thirty, forty years ago. You got your breakdowns and you wrote to those after you had spotted the film with everybody and come to some sort of conclusions. Having not done a film as a composer now for quite some time and having watched everything change dramatically (or maybe not dramatically at all!) over the years recently, is very different to me than what I grew up with. You know, I had got myself a big – ha ha – western picture and I was going to write a big western score, which turned out to be the wrong approach. Later on, I met Fred Coe at a party, he came over to me and he said “you know, all my friends in New York said – who the hell did that absolutely god-awful f***ing score for your picture? It sounds like a goddamn opera”. So I said, “thanks a lot, Fred, it was a kind of an opera”.
Could you go into any specifics about your work on the film?
They finished shooting the thing and I had worked with Fred Coe, the producer, on the ballad because they had hired a very snazzy, poet / novelist from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to come in and write this ballad for Billy the Kid. I did my best, churning out some kind of a folk ballad and then they left. The picture was now finished but not totally cut and Fred Coe and Arthur Penn both left for New York, to go into rehearsals for the Helen Keller play THE MIRACLE WORKER. I would get phone calls from Fred, at something like six o’clock in the morning, telling me what to tell the big fellows at Warner Brothers after the preview show that evening, what I was supposed to say in the name of Fred and Arthur, Which was a kind of a strange position to be put (in). Finally it just became a kind of a cult picture and the score is too much, but on the other hand, it isn’t that bad.
I believe your first work for Jerry Goldsmith was on MORITURI. Have you any stories about some of the other scores you have worked on for him, such as QBVII?
I did four pieces of source music for MORITURI. I did all Japanese music on TORA! TORA! TORA! and QBVII is a story in itself. Jerry’s wife – darling, darling wife’s father was a famous surgeon in Beverly Hills and he was also a Schubert maniac, who loved all of the Lieder, so sometimes at a party, he would sing and I would play some Lieder with him. So, when Jerry was going to go to Rome, to record QBVII, Carol’s father the doctor had written in Hebrew and transposed to English, the words for the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead and Jerry had set this to a marvellous, marvellous piece of music.
Now, we’re in Rome and Jerry is supposed to record this piece with the so-called Sistine Chapel Choir – at least, that’s what they said that their name was. It turned out to be a rather strange group of about twelve people, having nothing to do with the Sistine Chapel and having at least four contractors representing them. Anyway, now we’re supposed to be recording the Kaddish and Jerry comes down with a severe case of the flu, so he said “look, you have to go down and do this with this choir”. So I went down to this huge palace in the oldest part of Rome, with crucifixes all over the place, with pictures of the present, the past and perhaps even the future popes and there was this rather motley group and I, the Scotchman, was supposed to teach them how to sing the Kaddish in Hebrew. If that wasn’t something to reckon with, I don’t know.
Anyway, Jerry showed up, bundled up literally over his head, with overcoats and mufflers and I started in with these people, trying to speak to them in about four Italian words that I knew and the zero Hebrew words that I knew that they were supposed to sing – “yiskadoll, yiskadosh, shmaayrabb?” (as close as my memory can come up with) and I kept trying to tell them “pi?, profondo in gola” – you know, get it down deeper in your throat please. I could see Jerry under this bundle of clothing, laughing his head off – it was quite a scene. So it was one of the high points of my life, I can tell you, believe me.
It worked actually. There were at least six to eight contractors for the orchestra, and most of them spent their time during the recording sessions either playing cards or asleep, which the head of the whole bunch of them did next to me in the booth, snoring constantly. It was an experience never to be forgotten. It’s necessary that you understand that practically all of the work I did for Jerry, except for source music, was just straight orchestration, with his marvellous, clean and accurate and thoughtful sketches, for which I was always very grateful.
Of your work for John Williams, what were the differences between orchestrating FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, or was it purely a matter of one being a musical and the other a dramatic film?
Now as far as John Williams was concerned, I was already in Europe with my wife at the time on a trip, when I got a message from our joint agent, who was Lionel Newman’s brother Mark, that Herbie Spencer was tied up completely on SCROOGE and could not switch over to John for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and could I report to London as soon as possible, to do FIDDLER, which I did. I think I did twelve playbacks in nine weeks, including absolutely everything, except I think John did three, two of which I orchestrated. It was a tremendous job that was very worthwhile, it was a lot of fun and working with John has always been a distinct pleasure.
In fact, a little footnote to history, I had been orchestrating for so many years for Adolph Deutsch and had done SOME LIKE IT HOT with him and then when he came to do THE APARTMENT, I was tied up at Fox completely and I couldn’t, so he said “do you know a young orchestrator that I could get?” and I said “yes, I think I do”. John was just starting out, that was way, way back there (it had to be 1959) and he’d done, I think, some television at Universal and I said what about him. John orchestrated THE APARTMENT. It was John’s first and only orchestration job, so far as I know, and he had a very nice relationship with Adolph.
As far as FIDDLER ON THE ROOF goes, actually I did all of the arrangements, which means orchestrating my own sketches for the picture, except two that John did and I orchestrated the big nightmare sequence, which he did during the post-production work. So that was totally different to THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, which was straight orchestration for John, from a full sketch.
For Alex North’s THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY, did you do any research of period idioms or did he handle that?
Working with Alex North was one of the most wonderful things anyone can do, because I absolutely adored that man. Alex was the finest talent among the film composers, no matter who. Maybe Korngold was up there too – and John (Williams), now that he’s done a lot of concert work is among that very select group. THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY was fun because there was a certain amount of Renaissance source music needed and I did some research with a very knowledgeable man named Walter Starkie, who was an authority on the folk music of Italy and Spain. So I tried to make it as close to that as I could and still make it fit the demands of the picture. It was always a pleasure to work with Alex. I did a couple of other films with him, including his last one and he was so ill at the time, that it was really a very difficult assignment. But I loved the man, we all did.
Arthur Morton passed away last year; have you any memories of him you would like to share?
Jerry had used Arthur Morton as his orchestrator and Arthur was a very dear old friend. I had a sort of a deal with Arthur. Whenever he got tired – he was ten years older than I – I would just help him finish and that was it. He would just call me and say “you take over” or he’d just have the stuff sent to me because all of Jerry’s sketches were always delivered to the orchestrator, who then orchestrated them and called for the messenger to pick them up, to take them to JoAnn Kane, the copyists. Arthur Morton was a dear friend and we didn’t see much of each other after he had his stroke because it was very difficult. But in the old days, we were both sports car addicts, along with our leader Adolph Deutsch, who had the most expensive one and we would go out on our Sunday afternoon ramblings around Southern California in our little convoy, of Adolph’s Aston Martin, Arthur’s MG, my MG and another friend, who had an Austin Healy. Then there was Hugo Friedhofer…
Any Friedhofer memories?
Hugo and I found each other, really – although we’d known each other for years – on THE SUN ALSO RISES because they needed someone who knew something about bullfight music – here we go again. Since we went to the same doctor, I met him in the waiting room one time and he said “I’m going to do THE SUN ALSO RISES – you know something about that stuff, don’t you?” and I said “yeah, I know a lot about it”. He said “how would you like to do it”, so I was brought in as the supervisor of Spanish music for THE SUN ALSO RISES and Lionel (Newman) immediately christened me as “the Scotch Spick”, which was typical Lionel stuff. Anyway, that was a great deal of fun because I got to write pasodobles and little marches.
It was just a wonderful working with “Fayther”, which is what we all used to call Hugo because he was a darling man and one of the most erudite of all the composers, with the possible exception of Dave Raksin. And that was a great, great experience.
How did you get the role as conductor of ‘Turandot’ in YES, GIORGIO? As you were also the music co-ordinator of the film, was it by the request of Franklin J. Schaffner?
As far as GIORGIO is concerned, I have a reputation I guess around town, as being someone in the business who knew something about opera. I’m sure there were others but they were probably more expensive than I was. So, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams both recommended me to be the sort of major-domo of the music part of the opera situation. Actually, it was at the request of Frank Schaffner because he and Jerry were very close, after Jerry did a couple of scores for Frank.
When was the best time working in Hollywood? Was it during the Golden Age or later?
I was absolutely most fortunate that I got into Hollywood, into MGM and into the Freed unit at MGM with Adolph and André, during the last throes of the Golden Age of Hollywood because everything was going to pieces in the middle fifties. I can’t tell you what a wonderful thing it was to be part of the last of the big musicals, although we didn’t quite realize it at the time. It’s a lost art now.
Which types of music do you like to listen to?
My listening is very eclectic and in fact, I’m one of those people that has music going on in his head almost (all the time). Adolph Deutsch once said that he didn’t need a radio in his car, back then when there was nothing but a radio for a car, because, he said, “I always have some music in my head and what’s the use of listening to somebody else’s?”. I listen to everything under the sun, from Bach to Ellington. When I was a teenager, the Ellington band used to play live vaudeville in a theatre where I lived in New Jersey and I would go sneak out from school, to go and listen to the Ellington band, simply because I thought they were the greatest thing since Swiss cheese and I am still an Ellington fan, up, down, and sideways.
I understand that following your orchestration work on Jerry Goldsmith’s HOLLOW MAN, you decided to retire. Was it an enforced retirement or was it something you had been thinking about for a while?
Last May, my wife, I, our youngest daughter and a French friend of hers, were travelling around France together and one afternoon, in Perpignan, I suddenly, sitting on the arm of a chair, felt something strange in my head and my speech got slurred for about an hour or two and that was the end of it. But that was what is called a TIA, which is a Transient Ischemic Accident. So now I’m on some kind of medicine (Plavix), that is supposed to kind of control that but, when I got back here, my doctor said “no more work – retirement now”. So that was it, I piled up all of my music paper and gave it to a local music store and that’s it, no more writing for anyone, even dear old friends.
It’s not bad, if you’re a freelance, you’ve had a lot of time in your life, when you weren’t particularly doing anything, so you learned to fill up the time with something useful or maybe something not useful and not get too concerned about any of it and that’s what I’ve done, actually.
Will you continue to be involved in the industry in any way?
I will not be doing anything in the industry. Actually, the industry has changed radically and music has become a very different thing now, than it used to be, and I’m just very happy not to have to be a part of it any more. It was wonderful while it lasted and I feel very lucky and always will.
What are your hobbies and pastimes?
I’ve always had a hobby, mostly sport photography, which consisted of two kinds of sports. The first one was the bullfight, the corrida, in Mexico. The man-about-town and author, Barnaby Conrad and I became friends and when he wrote a book on Carlos Arrusa, who was the greatest of the Mexican modern matadors, he asked me for a particular shot that I had taken of him in action, which became the dust cover of Arrusa’s autobiography. The same shot was submitted by Barney, to an article he wrote, for a magazine called Colliers, which doesn’t exist anymore. They took twelve of my pictures and the same picture that was on the book cover won something called the Art Directors Club Medal. I heard one day, on the set of FUNNY FACE, that I had won the Art Directors Club Medal and I had never heard of it. I went to Richard Avedon – Dick Avedon was on the set all the time because, after all, the whole story of the movie of FUNNY FACE, was about him and I said “Dick,” I said, “I’m sorry to ask you such a silly question but what is the Art Directors Club Medal?” and he said “it’s the Art Directors Club in New York and it’s the highest award you can win in commercial photography – why?” and I said “well, I’m embarrassed to say this to you but I just found out from home that I’ve won one”. And he went into a kind of fit and said “You?! Why should you win one?” I said, “I don’t know, it was submitted by somebody else”.
Anyway, I did get my pictures in Life and in a couple of other first rate magazines and so I have a huge collection of sports car races and bullfights in various places. I still am sort of a modest collector of leicas and that’s really my second (hobby).
Now you have all this “free time”, how will you spend it? Have you considered writing a memoir?
I can’t imagine that anyone really would be interested in the story of my life, which I have been boring you with now, for quite some time.
Looking back, would you have liked to score more films yourself?
Looking back, I have no regrets. For a person of a rather strange sort of messy talents and no real talent for application very much, I am very grateful to have been able to have been part of all of that wonderful stuff.
How do you see the current state of cinema, television and music? Is it any worse or better than when you started in the business?
The current state of cinema, as I understand it, seems to be a sort of world of hummers and you really don’t have to know how to write music at all, which practically everybody else in the old days did. Now, you have “takedown” people. My understanding is, that the person who is the hummer, sits and watches the film in front of his synthesizer and taps out some things on a keyboard, which are then transcribed onto a piece of paper by the “takedown” person. Then someone comes along, who is a big type orchestrator, and makes something out of it, for an orchestra of god knows whatever size and that seems to be the way it’s become more and more…
Thank you for taking the time to answer all my questions. It’s been wonderful talking to you; I hope I haven’t bored you to death.
Thanks to Jeff Bond, the senior editor of Film Score Monthly and the always-valued editorial assistance and critique of Daphne Wickenden. Also, an enormous debt of gratitude must go to that musical matador, Alexander Courage, for being so giving of his time.