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CRITIC AT LARGE

Conti's 'Rocky' Road Leads To Rome And Back

October 17, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Native talent and hard work are the twin pillars on which careers are based. Generations have grown up on that truth, and they were not wrong.

Yet what about the also-rans? There seem to have been equal allowances of talent and hard work, but you end up giving piano lessons in Provo or directing a neighborhood theater company at night after work in Scranton. What, you ask yourself, made the difference?

It really is the breaks, the what-ifs, the accidents of timing and place. Readiness is all, and a break won't even look like a break unless you're prepared to take advantage of it. Those who do make it often turn out to have forced the what-ifs just by being ready and eager.

Those accidents of time and place are alleged to be Kismet or Fate or Destiny, and perhaps that's so, although on closer inspection you see that those accidents may have been nudged a little by saying yes to a dangerous option several moves earlier in the game.

Earlier this week I was picking my way through some of these skeins of circumstance with the film and television composer Bill Conti, who came to his first large fame with the score and song ("Gonna Fly Now") for the original "Rocky."

To cite a story of luck nicely forced, from earlier in his career: Conti, anxious to get film work in Hollywood, improvised some music and persuaded an editor he knew to play the tape during the viewing of the dailies of a film in production. The director, Paul Mazursky, liked the music and invited Conti to do the score.

Later the same editor, working for another director, urged Conti to submit some music on speculation again. This time the director liked the music but the studio hired a different composer. Later that editor and director were making yet another movie, this one on a minuscule budget. Both men remembered Conti as a man eager to work and willing to take chances, and they called him.

The director was John Avildsen and the film was "Rocky." That was a fame-making assignment, with an Oscar nomination for the song. But if you start tracing back the what-ifs on the meeting, it's hard to know where to stop, or start.

Conti was born in Providence, R.I., in 1942, but finished high school in North Miami, where his father retired after a heart attack. Conti won a bassoon scholarship to Louisiana State University. There he did arrangements for the marching band, accompanied the university ballet, played bassoon in the university orchestra--and played saloon piano in his spare time.

From LSU, which recently gave him an honorary degree, he went to Juilliard to study composition. "I'd play for strippers until 3 in the morning, study in the kitchen and go off to 8 o'clock classes."

After leaving Juilliard, Conti followed one of his teachers to Italy to study and compose opera. To support his wife Shelby, whom he had met and married at LSU, he played piano in Roman nightclubs, seven years' worth.

Among his piano-side admirers was the novelist and playwright Morris West ("Shoes of the Fisherman"). One night West asked him what he was earning at the club, then said he would pay him an equal sum to teach his son music theory.

"You say you're a composer. This way, never let it be said you didn't have a chance to be a composer."

Another Conti fan was the late eccentric guru of gas station prices, Dan Lundberg, visiting Italy aboard his yacht. On first acquaintance he offered to buy Conti a drink but insisted it be orange juice ("a healthy drink"). Later Lundberg decided to produce comedy records--in Latin--to help young people learn about Latin, and business.

"We did two," Conti says. "Dan wrote them and had them translated into Latin (where better than in Rome?)." Lundberg later signed a four-year personal management contract with Conti (subsequently torn up by mutual agreement) and, like West, insisted that Conti declare his independence from the nightclub work. "He tweaked until I squirmed."

"From the time I was 14 until I was 28 I played professionally every night," says Conti. (In high school he had his own band.) It invited galloping insecurity to give it up. By now he and his wife Shelby had two daughters. But Conti, sufficiently tweaked by West and Lundberg, began to do film work--orchestrating, conducting recording sessions. He wrote his first score for an unremembered film called "Candidate for Killing."

In 1973, while he was at the Venice Song Festival, Conti was asked to be music supervisor of "Blume in Love," which Paul Mazursky was shooting in town. Later Mazursky urged him to try his hand in Hollywood.

Nervously the Contis sailed to America. For want of a car, he rode a bicycle or buses from studio to studio seeking work. He did the score for a television special, "Papa and Me," and won an Emmy nomination for it, but he had decided, in disappointment, to head back to Italy.

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