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HENRY MANCINI, 1924-1994 // His work was music for the ear and the eye

Published Jun. 15, 1994|Updated Jul. 6, 2006

Henry Mancini, a composer whose music was heard in hundreds of films and television shows, and who won four Academy Awards, died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 70.

The cause was complications of pancreatic cancer.

Counting the movies for which he wrote music for just a scene or two, Mancini's work was heard in nearly 250 films.

It also was used to enhance six major television films and many other moments on television, ranging from the viewer mail segment of Late Night With David Letterman to theme music used periodically for NBC's election coverage. Mancini also made 85 record albums, most of them for RCA. He received 70 Grammy nominations and won 20 Grammy Awards for his recording work.

He worked quickly, and his output was prodigious. His best-known songs were Moon River, which was sung by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Days of Wine and Roses, the basis of thematic material used in the 1962 movie of the same name, starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. Both songs had lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and both won Academy Awards, for 1961 and 1962.

Mancini won an Academy Award for the entire score of Breakfast at Tiffany's and still another for the score for the 1982 film Victor/Victoria. He also was nominated for his scores for The Glenn Miller Story (1954), Charade (1963), The Pink Panther (1964) and 14 other film scores.

In television, he created the themes for Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky, both serialized in the late 1950s and early '60s.

Although he was among the most commercially successful composers in Hollywood, Mancini used to say he "never trusted this thing called success." For years, even after he acquired considerable fame and wealth after his creation of Moon River, he continued to compose using a rented piano.

In concerts, Mancini often played solos on the flute, a throwback to his earliest musical training.

Mancini's parents, Quinto and Anna Pece Mancini, immigrated to the United States from Italy. Henry was born in Cleveland on April 16, 1924, and reared in Alquippa, Pa., where his father, a steelworker, spent his leisure time playing the flute in the local Sons of Italy band. Henry preferred football to music, but was persuaded by his father to learn the piccolo, flute and piano.

"He held a club over my head _ well not literally," Mancini said. "But if I didn't practice, I got hit."

In later years, Mancini would recall going to the movies with his father to see Cecil B. DeMille's epic The Crusades and being greatly impressed by the score, by Rudolph Kopp. He decided that, despite his father's wishes, he would not become a teacher but would write music for the movies instead.

In high school, Mancini became interested in classical music, and after graduation he briefly studied music at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh.

It was there that he met Max Adkins, the conductor of the Stanley Theater pit band, who encouraged him to begin arranging music for the band. He would later say that had it not been for Adkins, he probably would have become another laborer in the steel mill that employed his father.

Mancini transferred to the Juilliard School of Music in New York after a year at Carnegie Tech, but he never finished his studies. He was drafted to fight in World War II and served in both the Army air forces and the infantry.

During the war, he got to know some musicians who played in Glenn Miller's Army Air Corps Band. After the war, Mancini arranged music and played piano for Miller's band, which was reorganized under Tex Beneke. There he was attracted to a backup singer in Mel Torme's Mel Tones, Virginia O'Connor. He married her in 1947, and she became by her own description, "Hank's most severe critic."

Eventually he began writing music for radio shows, among them The FBI in Peace and War. He became a staff composer for Universal-International studios in 1952 and wrote music for scenes in movies like Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Creature From the Black Lagoon and Ma and Pa Kettle at Home. He also contributed music to one of Hollywood's first rock musicals, Rock, Pretty Baby.

He left Universal-International in 1958, having received his first Academy Award nomination for his score for The Glenn Miller Story in 1954. He also wrote the scores for The Benny Goodman Story (1956) and Touch of Evil (1958).

Increasingly, Mancini was recognized as a pioneer in a new approach to film scores. It was an approach that moved away from the heavy symphonic treatments that had been produced by composers like Alfred Newman, Max Steiner and Miklos Rozsa and instead exploited jazz motifs, using smaller ensembles.

In 1958, Mancini walked out of the Universal barber shop and chanced to meet producer-director Blake Edwards, who would become his friend through more than 30 years and 25 films. Edwards asked if he would be interested in scoring a new television mystery show, and the resulting distinctive score for Peter Gunn provided Mancini's big break. The series was successful, and Edwards said much of its success was due to Mancini's undulating score, in which a guitar and a piano played in unison to achieve what Mancini called "a sinister effect with some frightened saxophones and some shouting brass." The hummable theme showed a national audience that music could enhance mood, suspense and action, and that Mancini was adept at creating it.

The theme was embraced by rock bands and high school and college marching bands and firmly established Mancini as a major composer for the genre. "Never has so much been made of so little," was Mancini's modest disclaimer.

Asked recently what he considered his most memorable music, Mancini said in terms of popularity it was the theme for Peter Gunn. "But as far as emotionally and artistically," he said, "I think it was the score I did for Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. If you listen to that score you'll hear a lot of things that finally developed further in film music. . . . Welles didn't want the ordinary kind of thing."

Mancini continued to experiment with revolutionary instrumentation and dissonant sounds, using bass flutes, harmonicas, untuned pianos, calliopes, and little-known Arabic and Japanese instruments. He used the harmonica to remarkable advantage in lacing the theme of Moon River through Breakfast at Tiffany's.

One reason Mancini's records succeeded better than those of other film composers was that he refused to release a movie soundtrack, believing the music was not meant to be simply listened to. Instead, he rearranged the score to emphasize major themes and recorded it in a fully equipped sound studio. That care on Moon River alone won him five Grammys to add to the Oscar.

Among his other film scores were those for The Great Race (1965), Arabesque (1966), The Molly Maguires (1970), The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978) Mommie Dearest (1981) and The Glass Menagerie (1987).

At his death, Mancini was completing work on a musical-theater adaptation of Victor/Victoria. He had written 25 new songs for the production, scheduled to open on Broadway in the fall.

Although Mancini seemed to prefer films over television, he continued to compose for the small screen, including themes for the series Newhart and Remington Steele and the mini-series The Thorn Birds.

Mancini's most recent albums were Mancini: Top Hat (Music from the Films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) and Henry Mancini: As Time Goes By.

His most recent film score was for Turner Broadcasting's animated Tom and Jerry _ The Movie released last year. He had written his autobiography, Did they Mention the Music?

He is survived by his wife; a son, Christopher; two daughters, Felice and Monica; and three grandchildren.


Film songs

Moon River, 1961 (from Breakfast at Tiffany's)

Days of Wine and Roses, 1962 (from film of same name)

Baby Elephant Walk, 1962 (from Hatari)

Charade, 1963 (from film of same name)

Dear Heart, 1965 (from film of same name)

Theme from the Pink Panther, 1964

Moment to Moment, 1965 (from film of same name)

Sweetheart Tree, 1965 (from The Great Race)

Whistling Away the Dark, 1970 (from Darling Lili)

Theme from Love Story, 1971

Film scores (films other than those mentioned above)

The Glenn Miller Story, 1954

The Benny Goodman Story, 1956

Touch of Evil, 1958

Arabesque, 1966

Wait Until Dark, 1967

The Great Waldo Pepper, 1975

Victor-Victoria, 1982

That's Life, 1986

Television music

Peter Gunn, 1958

Mr. Lucky, 1959

How Soon, 1963 (theme from Richard Boone Show)

Newhart, 1982

The Thorn Birds, miniseries, 1983

_ Information from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.


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