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The Tenacious Alex North

March 23, 1986|STEVEN SMITH

Self-promotion is hardly part of Alex North's vocabulary: the 75-year-old composer of scores for such films as "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Death of a Salesman," "Spartacus" and "Prizzi's Honor" is the first to politely decline an interview and the last to praise his own work.

His music, he believes, is a better spokesman.

Although North is widely considered one of the finest composers to work in film, he's never received an Oscar. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is rectifying the oversight somewhat Monday, when North will receive the first special Oscar ever given to a composer. (This year he's also receiving lifetime achievement awards from ASCAP and from the National Society for the Preservation of Film Music.)

Despite some health problems--most recently a back disorder--North has kept active in recent months, writing deliciously varied scores for "Prizzi's Honor" (not nominated) and new music (with his original score) for the stage/TV version of "Death of a Salesman" that starred Dustin Hoffman. Working under stress seems a prerequisite of sorts for the composer.

"There have been some crazy situations," North said from his Pacific Palisades home. "I scored 'Rich Man, Poor Man' (for which he won an Emmy) at Palo Alto, being treated for cancer for seven weeks. They'd send me the script, I hired a Fender Rhodes keyboard and worked on it after radiation treatments."

His tenacity seems to come from both music and his collaborators. "When I see John Huston running around despite his condition, it gives me a spiritual lift. And Dustin (Hoffman) was marvelous, a fantastic human being as well as an artist. He made suggestions on 'Death of a Salesman' which were wonderful. During one break he sat down at the piano and played the Gershwin Preludes. You're more apt to listen to musical suggestions from a guy like that."

With "Salesman," North's Hollywood career has come full circle. After studies at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute and many concert works, North moved to Broadway in 1949, composing original music for the premiere of Arthur Miller's "Salesman."

Critic Brooks Atkinson's description of that score remains North's own favorite description of his work: "Alex North has composed a witch's chorus that is pithy, practical and terrifying. Give Mr. North a theme and he goes straight to the heart of it without any musical pretensions."

The success of "Salesman" enabled director Elia Kazan to bring North to Hollywood in 1951 for the film version of "A Streetcar Named Desire," at a time when studios were wary of using non-staff and non-Hollywood composers.

Despite his prolific work, North remains something of an outsider in the Hollywood community; even if his health were better, he's hardly the type to actively campaign for work or join the town's social circuit.

"I ran back and forth to New York for five years in the '50s," he recalled. "In those days I especially missed the stimulus of the East Coast, the people. In New York I'd go to Broadway late at night to take a walk. In Beverly Hills I got stopped twice by cops when I was out buying a paper."

There was also the political climate of the '50s to reckon with. Like many composers and artists from the WPA-era '30s, North found himself "suspect," and was unable to work in Hollywood for several years.

The fact that North had studied at Moscow Conservatory in 1934-36 also didn't help matters: "I knew students were subsidized in Moscow," he recalled, "so I worked as a telegraph operator there while I studied at the Conservatory."

It was Elia Kazan's 1952 testimony as a "friendly witness" before the House Un-American Activities Committee that ended North's fruitful series of collaborations with that director, which included "Streetcar," "Viva Zapata," and "Salesman" on stage.

"We were brothers, until he went to the committee, and got a lot of my dear friends into trouble. That's my stand, right or wrong. It was a tough period politically, and I don't know how close we are to going back to it."

If North was a revolutionary, it was strictly on the sound track. One film music innovation he can take considerable credit for is his frequent use of "transparent," chamber-size ensembles--as in the jazz music of "Streetcar," or the quasi-baroque intimacy of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" In the '50s, when full-sized orchestras were still the norm, it was often an uphill battle to persuade studio music chiefs to trust him.

"The tradition was usually wall-to-wall music, and I couldn't see that. When I came out to do 'Streetcar,' (Warner Bros.) music director Ray Heindorf said, 'We've got 50 men under contract. What are you using eight for?' But the composer Hugo Friedhofer said to me, 'Thank God, maybe we can do what we want to now!' "

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