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46 Years Minding The Score At Fox

September 12, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Lionel Newman glances around the executive dining room at 20th Century Fox, viewing a new generation of executives, several of whom stop by to express a joshing disbelief that he is really going to retire after more than 40 years at the studio.

"Oh, I am, I am," Newman says. "They've been very nice. Wanted me to stay on, but it's enough. I don't even want to be a consultant. I've been here through 15 regimes. Fifteen! They've been terrible and wonderful years. They tell me in Payroll it's 46. I don't know. I count regimes."

He had started his career in music in New York as a rehearsal pianist and conductor for producer Earl Carroll's touring Vanities companies, and for Mae West.

"When you conduct, you use your arms a lot," Newman says, waving and endangering the flowers and glasses on the table. "After the first show, Mae grabs me backstage and says, 'They ain't comin' to see you , honey; keep your damn hands in fronta you.' "

He worked with Mae again years later, when she came to Fox to do "Myra Breckenridge." "She was so alone doing that picture," he says. "They didn't know who this lady was. They treated her with disrespect."

The Newman family saga is by now well known, as is Lionel's gaudy but unquotable language. There were seven brothers out of New Haven, of whom five survive. Alfred, who died in 1970 at the age of 69, was a child prodigy at the piano. After an early career on Broadway, he came to Hollywood in 1930 as a film composer, working on 200 films, winning nine Academy Awards and becoming musical director at Fox, the same job from which younger brother Lionel is now retiring. (Composer-performer Randy Newman is a nephew, the son of yet another of the brothers.)

Lionel followed Alfred to Hollywood. "We all followed him; he couldn't get away from us," Lionel says. He started as a rehearsal pianist at Fox, working for Alfred (one of nepotism's finer outings).

One day Alfred let Lionel conduct the recording of a scene, leading the studio orchestra (50 men under contract in the good old days) as the click-track cues marched across the giant screen in front of the musicians.

"I screwed up badly," Newman says. "All nerves. Al came up and grabbed the stick away from me, right in front of everybody. I wanted to die. Then he conducted the scene and he screwed it up, just to prove that it could happen to anybody."

In time, and with Alfred as teacher-mentor, Lionel moved off the rehearsal stage and began doing his own composing, scoring and conducting. He did "Cheaper by the Dozen," worked with Marilyn Monroe on "There's No Business Like Show Business" and Rex Harrison on "Doctor Dolittle" and won an Oscar in 1969 for scoring "Hello, Dolly!"

He has his heroes among film composers, including Henry Mancini, Leonard Rosenman, Lalo Schifrin, Jerry Goldsmith, Dominic Frontiere, Bill Conti and his great hero and close friend, John Williams. In his new retirement, Newman will go to London to assist Williams on the forthcoming "Peter Pan."

"Williams changed the scope of film music," Newman says. "He made it big again. He made it thrilling. I loathe synthesized music. There's no blanking emotion to it. But they do it for budgetary reasons. They'd use it in 'The Song of Bernadette' if they thought they could get away with it." (One of brother Alfred's nine Oscars was for "The Song of Bernadette.")

Newman thought the full-orchestra score might be back to stay (and although Newman does not say so, there now seems to be a Williams School of Film Composing, populated by his imitators). But, Newman snarls, "They're going to the crud again. Vangelis did a nice job on 'Chariots of Fire' and now everybody thinks they can use the synthesizer." He waves a dismissive hand.

"I also loathe television, but there are some pretty talented young guys writing music for it, if they'll give 'em half a chance."

Newman walks his visitor out of the executive dining room, past the Cafe de Paris commissary where Nikita Khrushchev and Spyros Skouras lunched (with a cast of hundreds) one memorable day in 1959.

"Fifteen regimes," Newman was saying. "Darryl--D. F.--he'd set a screening for 7 at night and show up at 10:30 from some restaurant. But he knew everything, remembered everything; he knew how to fix things. 'What about that cut we had on Reel 4?' he'd say.

"Buddy Adler, Bob Goldstein, Dick Zanuck, (Gordon) Stulberg, Dennis (Stanfill), Laddie (Alan Ladd Jr.), Alan (Hirshfield), the new guys. And there were some in there I'm forgetting," Newman says.

Newman's Fox years are in fact a kind of capsule history of later Hollywood, from the age of the moguls to the time of transient managers, from the roster of contract players to the free-floating stars and their powerful agents, from the symphonic elegance of composers like Franz Waxman and Al Newman to the song-scores of rock groups and the thudding beat of electronic sounds, from the undisturbed reign of movies over popular entertainment to their backs-to-the-wall struggle with television.

Behind the commissary the late-summer sun glinted on the towers of Century City, which used to be the Fox back lot, running all the way to a board fence at Santa Monica Boulevard. The present lot looked busy, but Newman complained, "Nobody knows anybody anymore."

Not quite true, of course. Everybody recognized Lionel Newman. It was the industry itself that had changed almost beyond recognition in Newman's 40-some years in it. He thought he'd do a quiet fade-out, no party. But the other night a platoon of his musical pals, including John Williams and Henry Mancini, enticed him to a bash at a Westwood restaurant. You don't let a historical landmark get away without a few well-chosen and probably outrageous words.

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