Michael Small, 64; Wrote Music for Movie Thrillers

Times Staff Writer

Michael Small, a film composer best known for his work on thrillers, including "Klute," "The Parallax View" and "Marathon Man," has died. He was 64.

Small died of prostate cancer Nov. 25 in a hospital in New York City.

Beginning with "Out of It," a 1969 teen movie co-starring Barry Gordon and Jon Voight, Small scored more than 50 movies and TV movies, including "The Stepford Wives," "The China Syndrome," "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Comes a Horseman," "Night Moves" and "Continental Divide." He also wrote music for commercials and documentaries, including "Pumping Iron," the 1977 bodybuilding documentary featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"He was a brilliant, brilliant composer," director Bob Rafelson told The Times on Wednesday.

Small scored four films for Rafelson, including "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "Black Widow," "Mountains of the Moon" and the HBO film "Poodle Springs."

Recalling their work on "The Postman Always Rings Twice," the 1981 adaptation of the James M. Cain novel starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, Rafelson said the story of a steamy affair between a drifter and the seductive wife of a roadside cafe owner who plot to murder the woman's husband contains the elements of a thriller. But Rafelson viewed the film primarily as a love story.

"So I didn't hire Michael because he wrote great thriller music," Rafelson said. "I hired him because he could write soaring, beautiful romantic melodies, and 'Postman' is a perfect example of that."

The score Rafelson said he loved the most was the one Small wrote for "Mountains of the Moon," his 1990 film about two English geographers who search for the source of the Nile River in the 1850s.

"There was this huge aspect of discovery that had to be in the music, of a world opening up to them, of the enthralling pride and feelings somebody has for seeing something for the first time that nobody had ever seen or described to them," Rafelson said.

Small's score, he said, "captured that sense of awe."

Born in New York City on May 30, 1939, Small grew up in Maplewood, N.J. His father, Jack Small, was an actor who became well-known in the New York theater world in the 1950s booking shows for the Shubert organization as general manager.

"When I was 4, I could pick out the tunes from 'Showboat,' which was in my father's summer stock engagement in Louisville," Small recalled for the film journal Music From the Movies in 1998.

His father was a friend of Jerome Robbins and Harold Rome and, Small recalled, "I dreamed of being a Broadway composer."

He took piano lessons as a child and, although he wrote original musical comedy shows while attending Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., he majored in English and spent a year in the master's program in English at Harvard.

"His father, knowing the insecurities of the theater world, wanted him to have a fall-back position as an English teacher," Lynn Small, his wife of 42 years, recalled Thursday.

It wasn't until Small moved to New York City after Harvard in 1962, she said, that he received formal music training, studying orchestration privately with composer Meyer Kupferman, head of the music department at Sarah Lawrence College.

Small had done background scoring for several New York theater productions and was attending a theater workshop run by the performing rights agency BMI when film producer Ed Pressman heard Small's music in a showcase and asked him to score the film "Out of It."

"So I fell into film scoring by accident," Small recalled in 1998, "and it really fired my imagination to work with an orchestra -- far more than writing 'show tunes.' "

In addition to his wife, Small is survived by his sons, Jonathan and David.

Services were held last week in New York City.

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