Forgive him, but Bill Conti really must play through

Times Staff Writer

COMPOSER Bill Conti doesn’t say it outright, but he’s an adrenaline junkie. He’s a trained high-performance driver, with a 1974 black Dino Ferrari, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, who, during his off-season, jets around the Gulf of Mexico in his cigarette boat.

“I’m into speed and stuff like that,” said Conti, humbly, as he awaited his 61 musicians for a recent rehearsal in the Capitol Records building. “I’m that guy that passes you going 120 miles an hour and you go ‘That guy’s going to die.’ ”

Not exactly the image that comes to mind when thinking “Oscar orchestra conductor.” But Conti’s endurance is legend. Oscar telecast producer Gil Cates calls him “a warrior.”


Conti’s best known by TV viewers as the feisty conductor unmoved by overly verbose celebrities on show night. Indeed, even Julia Roberts had to wave Conti aside as his orchestra attempted to usher her offstage in 2001, calling him “stick man” when he raised his baton to cue his musicians and cut short her lengthy acceptance speech for lead actress for “Erin Brockovich.” (Though Conti noted that she sent him chocolates and flowers the next day.) In 1997, one of the show’s highlights was Cuba Gooding Jr.’s attempts to shout over Conti’s music as the actor accepted the supporting award for “Jerry Maguire.”

45-second rule

Conti said he is poised and waiting for that 45-second speech clock to run out, which is when Cates gives the cue: “Bill. Get ready! We’re gonna’ kill ‘em!”

“This,” Conti said, taking that same posture, “is the kiss of death. You’re going off the air.”

Of course, the composer added that “if you extend your remarks, and you’re Jack Nicholson or Julia Roberts, I don’t think there’s a producer in the world that’s going to say, ‘Bill! Go! Kill ‘em!’ ”

So, in other words, in Hollywood, not all acceptance speeches are created equal.

Like Johnny Cash, Conti wears all black, all the time. Except in summer. Then he dons all white. His compact frame is always in motion as he speaks and he holds himself with the grace of an athlete. Indeed, Conti’s daily regimen includes a 30-minute walk, weight-lifting and 500 sit-ups. It’s a good thing too because the 65-year-old knows -- after 19 times conducting the Oscar orchestra -- he has to be at the top of his game on Sunday night.


“Am I beat up after the show?” he said. “You bet. You can’t move! I can’t fake the fear I had on Show One. But, you know, it never goes away that you should do a great job. And there’s a certain amount of adrenaline that keeps you in that place.”

Playing constantly

Conti has to have nerves of steel and the clear-eyed judgment of an air traffic controller. He’s making moment-by- moment decisions not only based on what he sees on stage but on the cues he gets in his earpiece from producer Cates and director Louis J. Horvitz. This year, the Juilliard-trained composer is also scoring a feature film in his spare time. Conti earned his own Oscar in 1984 for “The Right Stuff” score and has been nominated twice for best original song: for “Gonna Fly Now” from 1976’s “Rocky” and the theme for the 1981 James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only.”

On Oscar day, Conti and his orchestra will run through the entire, three-hour-plus show twice -- starting and stopping 110 times -- once for rehearsal and then once live. They play constantly, in between commercial breaks to the live audience, during this year’s five major musical numbers and then throughout the show.

That’s after weeks spent working with his musicians to perfect music, including the themes for five best picture nominees, only one of which will be played in full on Oscar night: the winner. It’s no wonder that on rehearsal night, Conti brings enough grappa to keep his musicians amiable.

As he wrestles with metaphors to communicate his Oscar experience, Conti returns to the notion of speed.

“Your tire could blow out at 120 miles per hour in the curve,” he said, with an impish smile. “You could make a mistake in this show. But if you did it really well, you’d get that rush, you’d get that wonderful rush that musicians get after they play.”

For Conti, that makes it all worthwhile.