Earle H. Hagen, the Emmy Award-winning television composer who wrote the memorable theme music for “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “I Spy” and other classic TV programs, has died. He was 88.
Hagen, who composed the jazz standard “Harlem Nocturne” and was a former big-band trombonist for Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Ray Noble, died Monday night at his home in Rancho Mirage, said his wife, Laura. He had been ill for several months.
After spending seven years at 20th Century Fox as an arranger and orchestrator, Hagen moved into television in 1953 after the studio cut back on its music department.
Over the next 33 years, he composed music for about 3,000 TV series episodes, pilots and TV movies -- as well as composing the themes for popular shows, including “That Girl,” “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” “The Mod Squad” and “Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.”
Hagen also wrote a jazz arrangement of the traditional Irish tune “Londonderry Air,” which served as the theme for Danny Thomas’ popular situation comedy, “Make Room for Daddy.” The Thomas show, which debuted in 1953, launched Hagen’s longtime professional relationship with director-producer Sheldon Leonard.
“There is no question in my mind that Earle Hagen is one of the most important composers in the history of television, if not the most important,” said Jon Burlingame, author of the 1996 book “TV’s Biggest Hits,” a chronicle of American television scoring.
When Hagen started his television career, Burlingame said, “There was very little original music being composed for television. He was one of the very few people who took the leap and saw the potential of music for television in terms of what could be accomplished dramatically and comedically.”
The themes that Hagen wrote, Burlingame said, “are among the most iconic in television history. Just think about the sort of country, folksy feel of ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ theme, and think about the big-band theme of ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show.’ Who doesn’t know those things?
“Even themes for shows like ‘That Girl’ and ‘I Spy’ and ‘The Mod Squad,’ which perhaps don’t re-run today as much as they should but at the time were huge television hits, were memorable. Hagen had an ability to capture the tone of any show he worked on.”
The happy-go-lucky theme for “The Andy Griffith Show” may be Hagen’s most recognizable tune. It’s certainly the most beloved.
In his autobiography, “Memoirs of a Famous Composer -- Nobody Ever Heard Of,” Hagen wrote that while sitting at home “wracking my brain for an idea for a theme for the Griffith show, it finally occurred to me that it should be something simple, something you could whistle. With that in mind, it took me about an hour to write the Andy Griffith theme.”
That night, he and several musicians recorded a demo of the theme for the opening of the show, with Hagen doing the whistling and his 11-year-old son Deane doing the finger-snapping. The next morning, Hagen took a copy of the demo to executive producer Leonard’s home.
As Hagen recalled: “He listened and said, ‘Great! I’ll do [the show’s opening] at Franklin Canyon Lake with Andy and Ronny [Howard] walking along the bank with a couple of fishing poles over their shoulders.”
During his TV heyday, Hagen wrote music for as many as five weekly shows simultaneously, putting in “16-hour workdays, seven days a week, for 40 weeks a year,” he told the online magazine Film Score Monthly in 2001.
“In the 12 weeks off between seasons, if anyone mentioned music to me, I would kill,” he said.
Hagen considered “I Spy,” the hourlong 1965-68 espionage series starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby and shot in exotic locales around the world, as his “first real challenge.”
“The changing panoramas of countries and plot lines were extremely daunting,” he told Film Score Monthly. Nevertheless, he said, “It was a fun show for music and adventure.” Executive producer Leonard “gave me full rein, and we never looked back. I tried to write a self-contained score for each episode. It was like scoring an hour movie a week.”
Before the series began filming, he and Leonard and their wives went on an around-the-world tour looking for locations, during which Hagen tape-recorded the indigenous music.
Most Eastern cultures, he said, “have their own scales. . . . Once you are familiar with what makes a particular country tick, it’s not so hard to write in that style. I always chose to Westernize the music for the audience.”
For his work on “I Spy,” Hagen received three Emmy Award nominations for outstanding achievement in musical composition, and he won the award in 1968.
“He was immensely talented and the dearest, sweetest, kindest man that you can possibly imagine,” Culp, who later became good friends with Hagen, told The Times on Tuesday.
“He said ‘I Spy’ was always his favorite show,” Culp said. “Unlike all the others, ‘I Spy’ had a new, clean score for every episode. That was unheard of; it was too expensive, but Sheldon put it in the budget. Earle cared more about this show and took more joy and pleasure in writing it than anything else he did.”
Hagen was born July 9, 1919, in Chicago, and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was about 6. He began playing a baritone horn in his junior high school band and turned to the trombone at Hollywood High.
After graduating at age 15, he began playing professionally on the road. Over the next several years, he had stints with the California Collegians and the Ben Pollack, Isham Jones, Goodman and Dorsey bands.
He was playing trombone and writing arrangements for the Ray Noble Orchestra in 1939 when he wrote “Harlem Nocturne.”
The sultry tune was frequently recorded, including by the Charlie Barnet, Glenn Miller and Stan Kenton bands. It also was used as the theme for “Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer,” starring Stacy Keach as the fedora-wearing, retro private eye.
During World War II, Hagen served in the Army Air Forces: He played trombone and wrote arrangements for the radio production unit’s 65-piece orchestra, which operated out of a broadcasting studio in Santa Ana.
After the war, he joined 20th Century Fox as an arranger and orchestrator and worked on movies such as “Monkey Business,” “Call Me Madam,” “The Farmer Takes a Wife” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
In the late 1940s, Hagen also did arrangements for a number of singers on various recording labels, including Frank Sinatra, Tony Martin, Dick Haymes and Frances Langford.
From 1953 to 1960, Hagen was partnered with former Fox arranger and orchestrator Herbert W. Spencer in writing music for television and recording albums under the Spencer-Hagen Orchestra name.
Even after he began working in television, Hagen returned to 20th Century Fox as an orchestrator for more than a dozen movies, including “Daddy Long Legs” and “Carousel.”
In 1961, he and Lionel Newman shared an Oscar nomination for best scoring of a musical picture for “Let’s Make Love.”
Hagen, who retired from television in 1986, taught the BMI workshop for film and TV composers for many years. He also wrote the 1971 book “Scoring for Films” and the 1990 book “Advanced Techniques for Films,” which are considered definitive textbooks on the subject.
Hagen’s wife of 59 years, former big-band singer Elouise “Lou” Sidwell, died in 2002.
In addition to his wife Laura, a singer whom he married in 2005, Hagen is survived by two sons, Deane and James; three stepchildren, Rebecca Roberts, Richard Roberts and Rachael Roberts; and four grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, 69855 East Ramon Road, Cathedral City.