Earle H. Hagen: Composer of film and TV scores

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Earle H. Hagen was a trombonist for Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, and an arranger who worked with Marilyn Monroe, but is best known for scoring around 3,000 episodes of some of the best-loved US television series.

The 1960s were Hagen's busiest time, when he sometimes worked on five series simultaneously. His swinging theme for The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) perfectly captured the star's energy, while That Girl (1966-71), about a would-be actress in New York, has an infectiously upbeat feel. But not all the series were successes: the comedy western Rango (1967) ran for only one season, although it had an enjoyable cowboy song theme performed by Frankie Laine.

Hagen didn't just score The Andy Griffith Show (1960-68), he also whistled the main theme, "The Fishin' Hole". But its laid-back charm hid a struggle: "The creative process is something like peeling an onion," he said. "Half of coming up with something good is throwing away what's not." Obviously it was good, as Hagen scored the spin-off Gomer Pyle U.M.S.C. (1964-69) and the follow-up Mayberry R.F.D. (1968-71).

Hagen scored more than 60 of the 82 episodes of I Spy (1965-68) and wrote the sassy, tropical title music. Robert Culp and Bill Cosby were television's first equally matched black and white co-stars and, despite the expense, the globe-trotting duo were filmed on location around the world. Rather than use stock music, Earle wrote a fresh score for every episode. After travelling with the crew to be inspired by local music, he would mix it with his own, to create what he called "semi-jazz". In the process he amassed a huge collection of world music recordings. The series won him three of his four Emmy nominations.

In The Mod Squad (1968-73), three hippies, "one white, one black, one blonde", agree to become crimefighters to avoid prison. Despite its poppy premise, Hagen actually used elements of dodecophony in the music. He ended his television work with Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer (1984-85) and the Andy Griffith Show reunion movie Return to Mayberry (1986). Hammer used "Harlem Nocturne" as the theme, the 1940s feel helping give the impression that the gumshoe was slightly out of sync with the 1980s setting.

Earle Hagen was born in Chicago, in 1919, but his family moved to Los Angeles while he was a boy. Leaving home at 16, he taught and played trombone with various bands, adding Harry to his name after a favourite uncle. Tommy Dorsey spotted him and, knowing that Benny Goodman was looking for a trombonist, recommended Hagen. Soon afterwards Dorsey himself called and the teenager found himself playing in both bands.

Hagen then swapped Dorsey and Goodman for the Ben Pollack Band and the Ray Noble Orchestra, for whom he also did arrangements. Hearing Duke Ellington's saxophonist Johnny Hodges in 1939 inspired him to write his first hit, the sultry "Harlem Nights", for Noble's Jack Dumont. When Noble disbanded the orchestra Hagen joined CBS before enlisting and marrying Noble's singer Lou Sidwell in 1942. Hagen took lessons from Ernst Toch and made arrangements for Sinatra, Crosby and others.

In 1946 he joined 20th Century-Fox, orchestrating dozens of films, and occasionally writing incidental music. Musicals were a forte, but he also took on darker films like the Tyrone Power circus-geek melodrama Nightmare Alley (1947). In 1952 he and his fellow arranger Herbert Spencer left Fox to form the Spencer Hagen Orchestra and, sharing the writing and with Hagen conducting, they served the growing television industry.

Their first success was Make Room for Daddy, a sitcom about a nightclub singer. Hagen proved to be a master of encapsulating the idea of a series in a minute or so of memorably melodic title music, and underlining the drama with ongoing incidental music. The producer Sheldon Leonard met Hagen, satisfied himself that he was reliable and signed off: "Good. Then you'll never see me." True to his word, Leonard left Hagen to his own devices for 20-odd years.

Hagen returned occasionally to film, bringing his jazzy touch to projects including With a Song in My Heart (1952), Call Me Madam, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and There's No Business Like Show Business (1954). In 1960 he and Lionel Newman shared an Oscar nomination for the Marilyn Monroe vehicle Let's Make Love.

After retiring from full-time composing, Hagen taught at the BMI Film Scoring Workshop. He wrote three books. Scoring for Films: a complete text (1971) did exactly what it said on the tin: at the time it was the only book to deal in detail with the technicalities of the work. In 1990 he brought it up to date with Advanced Techniques of Film Scoring. In 2002 he published his autobiography, Memoirs of a Famous Composer (Nobody Ever Heard Of).

John Riley

Earle Hagen, composer: born Chicago 9 July 1919; married 1942 Lou Sidwell (died 2002; two sons), 2005 Laura Roberts; died Rancho Mirage, California 26 May 2008.