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Henry Mancini--a 'Nice Guy' Scores Success

One in an occasional series on television and film composers

November 28, 1986|DON HECKMAN

"I don't want to get corny, but my career really has been the personification of the American dream."

Henry Mancini--"Hank" to his friends--spoke with an almost reverent awe about the past that has led him from Aliquippa, Pa., to Holmby Hills and the top of the film-scoring business.

"When I think of what it was like to come out of that little western Pennsylvania steel town in the middle of theDepression and somehow wind up here," he said, shaking his head in disbelief, "it still amazes me."

Understandably so. Mancini's "here" is one of Los Angeles' showcase homes, 9,000 square feet of flagstone and marble, polished wood and crystal, replete with swimming pool, tennis court and temperature-controlled wine cellar. Not exactly the classic composer's garret.

But the ambiance seems precisely right for the lean, soft-spoken, but quietly assured Mancini, a rare entertainment business "nice guy."

When he appears at 8:30 tonight and Saturday with the Pacific Symphony at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, his audiences will be sharing an evening with one of American popular music's most versatile and enduring composers.

"I try to change my concert program every couple of years," he said, "hopefully to keep my listeners interested. This program, for example, will include all my familiar songs and doodads--can't leave those out--along with a tribute to Victor Young and the music from John Barry's 'Out of Africa' score."

Mancini modestly identifies himself as a "film composer, plain and simple," but his music has reached far beyond the rectangle of the silver screen to bring him the kind of recognition that most film composers achieve only in their wildest dreams.

Among his seemingly endless list of professional honors are: 16 Academy Award nominations and four Oscars; 65 Grammy nominations, with 20 Grammy awards; four honorary doctorates; and--one of his favorites--a 1936 award as first flutist in the Pennsylvania All-State Band.

He has composed and arranged music for more than 150 motion pictures, numerous television series (five of them current) and more than 75 record albums, including 60 on RCA alone.

Bubbling through this astonishing torrent of music are three songs--"Moon River," "Days of Wine and Roses" and "Pink Panther"--that have become classics, and a television score ("Peter Gunn") that is continuously revived, most recently in an eccentric recording by the techno-rock group Art of Noise.

A highly selective list of his better known film scores would have to include "Victor, Victoria," "10," "Two for the Road" (which includes the title song, his own favorite), "Darling Lili," "Mommie Dearest," "Silver Streak," "Charade" and many, many more.

Even Mancini sometimes has difficulty grasping the sheer quantity of his work. "We've had to expand my office space," he said, "just to keep up with the storage problems. The other day I walked into one of those rooms filled with scores and pulled something out at random. When I looked at it I said to myself, 'I can't remember writing a note of this.' "

But he did. Unlike some busy composer/arrangers, Mancini rarely farms out work, preferring to keep a firm hand on the assembly of his orchestrations.

"I think it goes back to when I was a young teen-age flute player," he recalled. "I remember sitting there in the middle of the band, hearing all those sounds and trying to figure out how they went together."

His curiosity led him to the Juilliard School and--after World War II--to the Glenn Miller-Tex Beneke Orchestra.

"That's when the big change took place in my life," said Mancini. "I met Ginny, my wife, when I was doing arrangements for the Beneke Orchestra and she was singing with a group called the Meadowlarks.

"Getting married in 1947 and settling down in Hollywood was the real beginning of my career."

By 1952, Mancini was on Universal's music staff, making both large and small contributions to a relentless flow of films (more than 100 in six years), most notably "The Glenn Miller Story," which provided his first Academy Award nomination, "The Benny Goodman Story" and Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil."

With the success of "Peter Gunn" in 1958 and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (with its theme "Moon River") in 1962, Mancini skyrocketed to the top of the Hollywood film-music hierarchy.

One of the major reasons behind that achievement was his sure way with a melody. Other composers are more dissonant; some are more complex. But no established film composer has come close to matching Mancini's consistently warm, communicative themes.

It's almost impossible to think of "Days of Wine and Roses" without hearing Mancini's keening melody, or imagine Audrey Hepburn having "Breakfast at Tiffany's" without the accompaniment of "Moon River." And Blake Edwards would probably be the first to acknowledge that the herky-jerky, tenor saxophone theme of the "Pink Panther" movies played a significant part in their continued popularity.

"I don't know where those melodies come from," Mancini said, "but maybe they're the reason why my music seems to have trickled down all over the place--into the record field, into concerts, song writing, all that stuff."

He smiled and shook his head again, with his slightly bemused look. "You know, my career hasn't exactly been the sort of thing that usually happens to film composers, but I sure am glad it happened to me."

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