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He lives to entertain

A classic moment in Academy Awards history occurred in 1974 when 30-year-old composer Marvin Hamlisch picked up his unprecedented third Oscar of the evening _ two for his musical score for The Way We Were and one for The Sting.

Hamlisch, obviously embarrassed by the windfall, stepped to the podium for his third acceptance speech, looked out at the audience and quipped:

"I think we can now talk to each other as friends."

The crowd bought it. They cheered this boy wonder's cheeky humor as loudly as his award-winning songs. Suddenly, every mother watching had a new adopted son and Hollywood had a new star. America could, indeed, talk to Hamlisch as a friend because he had already composed music that touched them like one.

Hundreds of artists have covered his compositions on recordings, concerts and cocktail lounges around the world. His songs enable jilted lovers to recall The Way We Were or proclaim to a mate that Nobody Does It Better. Movies like Ordinary People, Sophie's Choice and Three Men and a Baby have benefited from his evocative sound tracks.

A Pulitzer Prize for the score of A Chorus Line and one for the Neil Simon smash They're Playing Our Song extended Hamlisch's winning streak to Broadway in the mid-1970s. Check the bins of any music store and chances are good that his work will be found in abundance.

Just don't look for much of it in the record racks of Hamlisch's spacious New York City penthouse.

"I don't have much of my material at home, other than an album or two," Hamlisch said in a recent interview. "I don't sit here glued to the idea that my library should have every cover record. That's always dealing with the past, and I tend to look forward to the future."

The future for Hamlisch includes the opening of yet another Broadway collaboration with Neil Simon in an adaptation of his movie hit The Goodbye Girl. Hamlisch also wrote the theme music for Norman Lear's new television comedy The Powers That Be.

His craftwork can be heard over the opening credits of the acclaimed ABC series Brooklyn Bridge _ a wispy theme song sung by Art Garfunkel. And the composer is always on the lookout for an opportunity to add his own musical interpretation of a motion picture's story.

In addition to his aforementioned screen successes, Hamlisch has scored themes for films ranging from manic comedies by Woody Allen (Bananas and Take the Money and Run) to moody dramas such as Save the Tiger and Fat City.

"One of the advantages you have is that when the composer comes into the picture, he has not seen the film for the many, many months the director has seen it," Hamlisch said. "He comes in a little fresh, which is helpful.

"On the other hand, the director has a very specific thing in mind. What you try to do is bring your new, fresh thoughts to it and hopefully infuse the director with your idea, so there's kind of a meeting of the minds. Usually, that works out very well."

Even with his composing success, Hamlisch points to a time when he was a second banana to famed comic Groucho Marx as one of the highlights of his career.

"During the end of his life he did three concerts; sort of like therapy for him," Hamlisch recalled. "It was wonderful because I didn't know my grandfather at all. Now here was this man who was really like the grandfather I could have had."

Hamlisch played straight-man to the ailing comedian, who needed his jokes written on 3-by-5 cards. Marx would sing a few tunes, then tell a few stories and, occasionally, Hamlisch would have to lead him back on track.

Inspired by that experience, Hamlisch sought to include those same qualities in his own showcases. Unlike some composers who prefer a serious approach to their works, Hamlisch likes to tickle funny bones as well as ivories.

"People who haven't seen me get a big kick out of the fact that there's a lot of humor in the shows," Hamlisch said. "That's the fun of doing it for me."

Much of that funny business comes in the form of Hamlisch's trademark segment titled Rent-A-Composer. Audience members offer him silly or serious titles for songs and Hamlisch creates a song based on that idea on the spot.

"Some of them may not be as good as others, but it's impossible to stump me," Hamlisch said. "I can musicalize anything, so it doesn't matter."

AT A GLANCE

Marvin Hamlisch at the Bayfront Center Mahaffey Theater on Sunday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $27 and $28.50 and are available at the box office or any Ticketmaster outlet (a service charge will be added). Call 287-8844 (Hillsborough) or 898-2100 (Pinellas) for information.

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