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OBITUARIES : Earle H. Hagen, 1919 - 2008

Composer of TV music won Emmy

May 28, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Earle H. Hagen, the Emmy Award-winning television composer who wrote the memorable theme music for "The Andy Griffith Show," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "I Spy" and other classic TV programs, has died. He was 88.

Hagen, who composed the jazz standard "Harlem Nocturne" and was a former big-band trombonist for Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Ray Noble, died Monday night at his home in Rancho Mirage, said his wife, Laura. He had been ill for several months.

After spending seven years at 20th Century Fox as an arranger and orchestrator, Hagen moved into television in 1953 after the studio cut back on its music department.

Over the next 33 years, he composed music for about 3,000 TV series episodes, pilots and TV movies -- as well as composing the themes for popular shows, including "That Girl," "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.," "The Mod Squad" and "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer."

Hagen also wrote a jazz arrangement of the traditional Irish tune "Londonderry Air," which served as the theme for Danny Thomas' popular situation comedy, "Make Room for Daddy." The Thomas show, which debuted in 1953, launched Hagen's longtime professional relationship with director-producer Sheldon Leonard.

"There is no question in my mind that Earle Hagen is one of the most important composers in the history of television, if not the most important," said Jon Burlingame, author of the 1996 book "TV's Biggest Hits," a chronicle of American television scoring.

When Hagen started his television career, Burlingame said, "There was very little original music being composed for television. He was one of the very few people who took the leap and saw the potential of music for television in terms of what could be accomplished dramatically and comedically."

The themes that Hagen wrote, Burlingame said, "are among the most iconic in television history. Just think about the sort of country, folksy feel of 'The Andy Griffith Show' theme, and think about the big-band theme of 'The Dick Van Dyke Show.' Who doesn't know those things?

"Even themes for shows like 'That Girl' and 'I Spy' and 'The Mod Squad,' which perhaps don't re-run today as much as they should but at the time were huge television hits, were memorable. Hagen had an ability to capture the tone of any show he worked on."

The happy-go-lucky theme for "The Andy Griffith Show" may be Hagen's most recognizable tune. It's certainly the most beloved.

In his autobiography, "Memoirs of a Famous Composer -- Nobody Ever Heard Of," Hagen wrote that while sitting at home "wracking my brain for an idea for a theme for the Griffith show, it finally occurred to me that it should be something simple, something you could whistle. With that in mind, it took me about an hour to write the Andy Griffith theme."

That night, he and several musicians recorded a demo of the theme for the opening of the show, with Hagen doing the whistling and his 11-year-old son Deane doing the finger-snapping. The next morning, Hagen took a copy of the demo to executive producer Leonard's home.

As Hagen recalled: "He listened and said, 'Great! I'll do [the show's opening] at Franklin Canyon Lake with Andy and Ronny [Howard] walking along the bank with a couple of fishing poles over their shoulders."

During his TV heyday, Hagen wrote music for as many as five weekly shows simultaneously, putting in "16-hour workdays, seven days a week, for 40 weeks a year," he told the online magazine Film Score Monthly in 2001.

"In the 12 weeks off between seasons, if anyone mentioned music to me, I would kill," he said.

Hagen considered "I Spy," the hourlong 1965-68 espionage series starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby and shot in exotic locales around the world, as his "first real challenge."

"The changing panoramas of countries and plot lines were extremely daunting," he told Film Score Monthly. Nevertheless, he said, "It was a fun show for music and adventure." Executive producer Leonard "gave me full rein, and we never looked back. I tried to write a self-contained score for each episode. It was like scoring an hour movie a week."

Before the series began filming, he and Leonard and their wives went on an around-the-world tour looking for locations, during which Hagen tape-recorded the indigenous music.

Most Eastern cultures, he said, "have their own scales. . . . Once you are familiar with what makes a particular country tick, it's not so hard to write in that style. I always chose to Westernize the music for the audience."

For his work on "I Spy," Hagen received three Emmy Award nominations for outstanding achievement in musical composition, and he won the award in 1968.

"He was immensely talented and the dearest, sweetest, kindest man that you can possibly imagine," Culp, who later became good friends with Hagen, told The Times on Tuesday.

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