From the tuneful whistle for The Andy Griffith Show to the big-band rhythms of The Dick Van Dyke Show, the jazzy suspense of I Spy and the noirish saxophone of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Earle Hagen wrote some of television’s most enduring musical themes.
In the 1950s Hagen was a pioneer of original music created for television — at the time most TV music was cheaply recorded, generic mood music licensed from already existing libraries — and by the 1960s, he was composing, arranging and conducting for as many as five shows a week, among them The Danny Thomas Show, That Girl and The Mod Squad. He set a high standard to which other TV composers would aspire in the years to come.
“Earle was a huge influence on us, and really good with the tunes,” says composer Mike Post, whose own themes (Hill Street Blues, The Rockford Files, Law & Order) also achieved classic status in later years. “He would send them out humming — or whistling. He did every kind of show: action-adventure, drama…he practically invented music for sitcoms. And he was genuinely kind to younger composers.”
Hagen came to television from nearly twenty years of experience as a musician during the big-band era, and as an orchestrator and arranger for motion pictures. Born in Chicago in 1919, he moved to Los Angeles as a youngster. He graduated at sixteen from Hollywood High School and went on the road as a trombone player, eventually landing spots in the bands of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Ray Noble.
It was in 1939, while Hagen was playing for Noble, that he wrote his first hit: a three-minute Duke Ellington–inspired tune called “Harlem Nocturne.” (Forty-four years later it would become the theme for Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.) At the time he was writing arrangements for vocalists including Frank Sinatra, Tony Martin, Dick Haymes and other singers, but found his calling at the movies. He was hired by 20th Century Fox’s legendary music director Alfred Newman to work on the studio’s musicals in the late 1940s and early 1950s — movies like Call Me Madam, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and There’s No Business Like Show Business.
But when Fox, under financial pressure from the growing popularity of television, downsized its music staff in 1952, Hagen was laid off. He and a fellow Fox arranger, Herbert Spencer, formed the Spencer-Hagen Orchestra for recording and started working in the very medium that cost them their jobs. When pilots starring Ray Bolger and Danny Thomas sold in 1953, they were thrust into the TV-scoring business. The Bolger show didn’t last, but their arrangement of “Londonderry Air” as the theme for Make Room For Daddy (later The Danny Thomas Show) gave new life to the old Irish folk tune for eleven seasons.
Hagen and Spencer ended their partnership in 1960, just before the creation of The Andy Griffith Show, which they were to score. Hagen struggled with the idea of a signature tune for this folksy character and his extended family: “It finally occurred to me that [the theme] should be something simple, something you could whistle,” Hagen later wrote in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Famous Composer Nobody Ever Heard Of. Hagen whistled it, and with the help of a bass player, guitarist and drummer (and Hagen’s eleven-year-old son snapping his fingers) a classic of musical Americana was born. “I had never whistled anything before, and I’ve never whistled anything since,” Hagen often quipped. The music inspired producer Sheldon Leonard to shoot his main-title sequence of Griffith and young Ron Howard going fishing together.
At Leonard’s urging, Hagen instituted a practice of writing new music for every episode of his many series (even though musicians’ union rules at the time permitted “tracking,” or re-using earlier music from the same series). So each episode of The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and many others had its own unique score, tailored specifically to the story being told.
As Griffith said in 2004: “People ask me sometimes why the show is so popular, and I’ve always said it’s because it was based on love. Earle Hagen knew that because he wrote the beautiful music that went with the show.”
Hagen had a knack of finding just the right sound for each series: A jaunty march for the hick-in-the-Marine Corps comedy Gomer Pyle USMC, a mariachi band for the Mexican-born character Jose Jimenez in The Bill Dana Show. For The Dick Van Dyke Show, it was an upbeat, swinging sound with a little nod to Van Dyke’s penchant for physical comedy (remember the trip over the ottoman?). Says Van Dyke: “It promised laughter but was seasoned with an air of sophistication that set the right mood for what we were offering. He was a wonderful guy and one of the last real jazzmen.”
In 1963, Sheldon Leonard — having a vague idea about shooting an hour-long dramatic series on location around the world — invited Hagen and his wife on a trip to scout locations. They traveled to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Calcutta, Tel Aviv, Athens, Rome, Paris — fifty-two days in all — and while Leonard was looking for places to shoot, Hagen scoured the countryside for every kind of exotic music that might lend authenticity when he came to write the scores.
The show was I Spy, and while it broke new ground for its location filming and for its above-the-title billing for a white and a black actor (Robert Culp and Bill Cosby as globetrotting secret agents), it was also remarkable for its colorful, exciting musical scores. Hagen’s music was Primetime Emmy-nominated for each of I Spy’s three seasons; he won for a third-season episode set in Greece. While all of it was written and recorded in Los Angeles, it was consistently inspired by the real-life sounds of the various cultures on display in the show.
Cosby contends that Hagen’s music was comparable to that of the big-screen spy adventures that were then popular. “Earle’s writing was very, very competitive,” Cosby says. “Some of it was absolutely brilliant. Earle’s music was authentic. He had to know the countries, the cultures. There wasn’t any faking or cliché. I also loved his respect for progressive jazz. He was about as cool and wonderful and honest as anybody.”
When it came to That Girl, Marlo Thomas decided she didn’t want her show to sound like the average sitcom. “I wanted it to be more melodic,” she says. “We were kind of a romantic comedy, so I wanted the music to have that feel. I loved it when I first heard the music — it sounded like a movie theme. It could have been for Audrey Hepburn, with a kind of spirit and hope, and it was very feminine. I was thrilled with what he came up with.”
Still more shows followed — a harder edge, employing jazz-rock techniques, for The Mod Squad; country flavors for such 1970s series as Movin’ On and Nashville 99; innocuous backgrounds for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; and gentle, warm music for the family drama Eight Is Enough. By the early 1980s, Hagen was writing guitar-and-banjo bluegrass for The Dukes of Hazzard.
In 1983, Hagen got a surprising phone call about that song from his big-band days: would he agree to the use of “Harlem Nocturne” for a new series starring Stacy Keach as New York private eye Mike Hammer? And would he be interested in scoring it? Hagen said yes.
“It has a nostalgic, film-noir quality about it,” notes Keach, who befriended Hagen and even played “Harlem Nocturne” at the piano when the composer was honored by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 2008. “Like Mike Hammer himself, it has a very New York feel about it. People used to tell me they watched the show just to listen to the music.”
Hagen then composed the music for the 1986 TV-movie Return to Mayberry, which reunited the cast of The Andy Griffith Show, and — after scoring an estimated 3,000 television episodes — finally put down his pencil. But he didn’t retire. He simply segued into an area that he had been dabbling in for two decades: writing and teaching.
Since the early 1970s, Hagen had been holding private classes in his Calabasas home for young composers interested in learning more about film scoring. Recalls composer Bruce Babcock (Murder, She Wrote), who orchestrated for Hagen in the 1980s: “I was fortunate enough to take Earle’s course at a time when the only way to study the synchronization of music to film, and the psychology involved, was to attend Earle’s living-room workshop — if you were willing to provide the dozen Titleist golf balls he required as tuition. What an education I received, and what opportunities.”
Hagen’s course became formalized when the performing-rights organization BMI launched an annual film-scoring workshop in 1986 with Hagen at the helm. In the meantime, he wrote two textbooks: Scoring for Films (1971) and Advanced Techniques for Film Scoring (1990), which are still used today. He died in May 2008, at the age of eighty-eight.
In a 1997 interview for the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television, Hagen said he’d like to be remembered “as a man who was a capable professional, who did good work, never sloughed a job, and who created some things that were interesting and perhaps memorable.” Talk about understatement. Tens of millions can hum his themes. As Marlo Thomas says: “More people remember the theme songs than even the names of the people who were in the shows!”
Adds Stacy Keach: “He was warm and kind and gracious and funny. He could work in so many different styles, just extraordinary versatility and variety. And he was a genius in his ability to musically capture the essence of what was on the screen. He was a giant.”