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Uncle, Nephew Keep Up The Newman Tradition

May 01, 1985|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

Long before winning local hearts with "I Love L.A.," Randy Newman was known for witty and perverse pop tunes about short people, rednecks, wacko politicians and slave traders.

So you'd expect him to be a bit mischievous.

But who ever figured that the real cutup during an interview on the 20th Century Fox lot would be Randy's uncle, Lionel?

When you're talking Lionel Newman, you're talking Hollywood tradition.

After starting in the shadow of his late brother, Alfred, one of Hollywood's most acclaimed composers, Lionel went on to become a respected film conductor-composer himself. He won an Oscar for his work on the score of "Hello, Dolly!" and has been associated for nearly 40 years with the music department at Fox, where he is now senior vice president.

But Lionel--who'll be saluted Friday night by the New American Orchestra--demonstrates why you should never equate tradition with stuffiness.

During lunch, Lionel and Randy alternated between warm family good humor and moments when they sounded like any two craftsmen getting together to discuss their work. They spoke about the challenge of film work and the joys of working with studio orchestras. They reminisced about favorite movie scores and lamented the trend toward filling a film with inappropriate music merely to try for a hit sound-track LP.

And they shared a laugh over the frustrations of working with insensitive or unrealistic producers and directors.

"There've been a lot of producers who say, 'Please, we need a score to save the film,' " Lionel said. "But you can't save a bad film with a score. I don't know of it ever happening. A score can help a little, but it's like trying to put mustard on . . . er. . . ."

Lionel paused and smiled at Randy before finishing the sentence, " . . . like putting mustard on something distasteful."

Then, he continued, playfully, "See, Randy, I'm watching my language just like I told you I would. I'm not getting dirty."

The dapper music director leaned across the table and confided, "I must tell you . . . Randy warned me to mind my manners today . . . not to embarrass him."

His nephew laughed.

"No . . . no," Randy protested. "That's not true. I want everyone to know what my family is really like so that they can see how hard I've had to work just be to be normal . . . how far up the evolutionary scale I've come."

And so it went.

Randy's transition from pop songwriter to Oscar-nominated film composer (for "Ragtime" and "The Natural") defied heavy odds, because the technical demands of film scoring are far beyond the grasp of most pop figures, even someone like Newman, who is among the most praised writers of the post-World War II era. But his uncle's Hollywood success story defied even higher odds.

Lionel tends to downplay his achievements, suggesting he has merely gone from being known as Alfred's brother to Randy's uncle. But Jack Elliott, co-founder and music director of the New American Orchestra, adds some perspective to that modest view.

"I wasn't around (in the days Lionel was getting started), but you can imagine going up against the reputation of Al Newman in this town," Elliott said. "Lionel's fight for his own identity was a considerable one and he has done a hell of a job at it. He hasn't just continued in the family tradition of excellence, but he has added to it. That's why we are honoring him Friday." At the Pavilion, Lionel will conduct the orchestra of premier Hollywood studio musicians in a selection of songs identified with Fox films, while Randy will perform some of his own tunes in the program.

The evening will also include a featured performance by jazz saxophonist Bud Shank of Manny Albam's Concerto for Jazz Sax and Orchestra, the premiere performance of two newly commissioned works: Larry Cansler's "Mojave" with narration by astronaut Scott Carpenter and jazz flutist James Newton's "91st Psalm" with guest soprano Gwendolyn Lytle.

In his office at Fox, Lionel recalled being so nervous when his brother gave him his first chance to conduct that he couldn't even keep the tempo right. "But I found myself doing more and getting pictures on my own," he continued. "I must say I got all the (bleep) pictures for a while, but it was a (bleep) learning period."

Though he wrote hit songs (including "Again" in 1949) and scores (including "Love Me Tender," which was Elvis Presley's film debut, and "How to Marry a Millionaire"), he discovered his chief love was conducting. Among the scores he has conducted: "The Omen," "Cleopatra," "Planet of the Apes."

While Newman is thinking ahead to retirement (his Fox contract expires next year), this afternoon he preferred to look back. Asked to cite his favorite film composers, Lionel went through a long list that ranged from brother Alfred and Erich Korngold to such current standouts as John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. One surprising omission: Bernard Herrmann, whose scores ranged from "Citizen Kane" through such Hitchcock classics as "Psycho" and "North by Northwest."

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