L.A. music’s first family

Hollywood history is filled with family dynasties of one sort or another — the Barrymores, the Fondas, the Hustons — but in the realm of music, only one name qualifies: the Newmans.

As Daily Variety’s American Music Legend honorees for 1997, the Newmans follow in the footsteps of Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein, but it was the elder Newmans — Alfred and Lionel — who paved the road for many of the great film composers and conductors who followed in their wake.

It began with Alfred Newman, the legendary composer and conductor who, along with fellow composers Max Steiner (“Gone With the Wind”) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (“The Adventures of Robin Hood”), effectively created and developed the art of movie scoring in the 1930s.

Newman (1900-70) was the eldest of 10 children in a working-class family in New Haven, Conn. A piano prodigy, he was performing in public by the age of 8, accompanying vaudeville performers by the age of 13 and conducting musicals on Broadway by the time he was 18 (for such popular songwriters as George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers).

Newman came to Hollywood in 1930 at the behest of Irving Berlin, who wanted Newman to be musical director of his United Artists film “Reaching for the Moon.” What was originally planned as a three-month visit turned into an entire career of writing and supervising music for movies.

Two moguls of the era formed lasting associations with Newman: Samuel Goldwyn, for whom the composer wrote one of film’s most enduring urban-setting themes in 1931’s “Street Scene,” and Darryl F. Zanuck, for whom Newman created (in 1935) the memorable, and still-used, 20th Century Fox fanfare.

Zanuck so respected Newman’s talents that he made the composer music director at Fox in 1940, a post that Newman held for 20 years. “Even if he had not been a composer-conductor, he would have been a genius in terms of running a music department. He was a superb administrator,” says author and film historian Tony Thomas (“Music for the Movies,” “The Films of 20th Century Fox”).

At Fox, Newman not only composed dozens of film scores, he also conducted the musicals, assigned other composers to films and oversaw the studio’s entire music operation. Not just another vice president, he was a power to be reckoned with: In at least one case a director attempted to drop some of Newman’s music and Zanuck overruled him, deferring to the composer on all matters related to scoring.

Nominated an incredible 45 times for Academy Awards, Newman won nine, which makes him second only to Walt Disney in terms of Oscar wins (and Disney, more often than not, accepted on behalf of the studio, not for individual achievement). Eight of his nine Oscars were for adapting and conducting musicals for the big screen, including such favorites as “The King and I” and “Camelot.” He also adapted “Carousel,” “Flower Drum Song” and “South Pacific.”

His sole Oscar for original dramatic score was for 1943’s “The Song of Bernadette,” one of several religious pictures for which Newman (though a non-practicing Jew) had a remarkable affinity. His setting of the 23rd Psalm for “David and Bathsheba,” powerful orchestral-and-choral score for the first Cinemascope picture “The Robe,” the undeniable spiritual quality of his music for “The Diary of Anne Frank” and his moving theme for Jesus in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” were equally compelling.

But he was at home in all genres, composing some of the greatest scores in film history: the swashbuckling sounds of “The Prisoner of Zenda,” the haunting love theme for Cathy and Heathcliff in Goldwyn’s classic “Wuthering Heights,” traditional Welsh melodies for John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley,” the flavorful Spanish atmosphere and martial rhythms of “Captain From Castile,” the rousing Americana of “How the West Was Won” — more than 250 scores in all.

As Fox’s music boss, Newman could have assigned all the best films to himself. Instead, more often than not, he gave them to other composers, sometimes jumpstarting careers or just keeping them alive. David Raksin got “Laura,” in the process writing one of film’s most memorable themes. Bernard Herrmann wrote his most romantic score for “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” and a groundbreaking electronic one for “The Day the Earth Stood Still” because Newman knew he was right for those pictures.

Newman’s recommendations worked even outside of Fox. Hugo Friedhofer won an Oscar for scoring “The Best Years of Our Lives” after Newman recommended the composer to Goldwyn; Jerry Goldsmith’s first major film, “Lonely Are the Brave,” came about as the result of a Newman suggestion.

That Newman was the finest conductor in Hollywood history is now widely accepted among musicologists and musical historians. In fact, Raksin says, the gregarious Newman actually preferred conducting to the far more lonely life of composing. “There was in his conducting style,” Raksin says, “a mixture of sentiment and romantic turbulence, of precision and passionate intensity, that is next to impossible to duplicate.”

Newman, a heavy smoker and a lover of fine Irish whiskey, died of emphysema in February 1970, not long after finishing his final (and later, Oscar-nominated) score, for the original “Airport.” His sons, David and Thomas, followed him into film composing; his daughter, Maria, is an acclaimed violinist, violist and composer of music for the concert hall.

Most of Alfred’s younger brothers followed him to the West Coast during the 1930s and ’40s. Emil Newman (1910-84) also became a composer and conductor, writing music for such films as “Berlin Correspondent” and “Hondo,” conducting for major composers including Hugo Friedhofer and Jerome Moross, and later conducting for some of nephew Randy Newman’s early pop records. Marc Newman (1908-80) became an agent and, in the 1960s, opened an agency that represented many of the major composers in Hollywood, including Goldsmith, John Williams and Lalo Schifrin. Robert Newman (1903-82), once a press agent and Broadway producer, became an executive at several studios including Republic, Goldwyn, John Wayne’s Batjac and Paramount.

Alfred’s youngest brother, Lionel (1916-89), enjoyed nearly as much success as a conductor and administrator. He spent 46 years at Fox and boasted of having survived more than a dozen regimes before his retirement in 1985.

Lionel Newman played piano for vaudeville acts, conducted for “Earl Carroll’s Vanities” on Broadway and wound up as Mae West’s accompanist during the 1930s. He joined Fox as a rehearsal pianist, wrote songs for Fox pictures (notably “Again,” which was a major hit after its initial appearance in 1948’s “Road House” and eventually sold 4 million copies) and became a respected conductor at the studio.

Lionel was Marilyn Monroe’s favorite conductor. He served as musical director and occasional songwriter on several of her Fox pictures, including “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “River of No Return” and “Let’s Make Love.” He also wrote the score for Elvis Presley’s first film, “Love Me Tender.”

Lionel was named director of television music at Fox in 1959, and oversaw the scoring of all Fox TV shows from that point on. He wrote several classic themes, including “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” “Adventures in Paradise” and “Daniel Boone.” A decade before “Star Wars,” John Williams got his feet wet in science fiction when Newman hired him to score Fox’s “Lost in Space,” “The Time Tunnel” and “Land of the Giants.”

Williams and Newman became close friends. “He was the last of the genuine music directors,” Williams says. “He could make a fuss about budgets and schedules, but when it came to the music he was always a perfectionist. If he knew that one more take would produce some nuance, some point of ensemble playing that might improve the scene he was scoring, he would never spare the expense.”

Lionel Newman received 11 Oscar nominations, mostly for his adaptation or musical direction on musicals at Fox. Among them were “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Let’s Make Love,” both with Monroe
, and “Doctor Dolittle.” He won for 1969’s “Hello, Dolly!” and briefly scandalized Hollywood with his off-color acceptance speech at the Oscars. He said of his co-winner: “Lennie Hayton couldn’t make it tonight but I’m sure he’s just as gassed as I am…”

Newman’s salty language was off-putting to some colleagues, amusing to others. “Lionel would always say outrageous things, and he got away with it,” Williams says. “Steven Spielberg used to say that the trouble with Lionel was that his mother didn’t wash his mouth out with soap often enough.” He conducted many of the great Fox scores of the ’60s and ’70s, including Alex North’s “Cleopatra” and Jerry Goldsmith’s “The Sand Pebbles.” In the 1970s he succeeded his brother as general music director of both feature films and TV, and became a senior vice president in 1982. MGM/UA briefly lured him out of retirement as a senior vice president in 1988, a post he held until his death in early 1989.

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