Marvin Hamlisch was a 6-year-old prodigy when he was accepted into the Juilliard School of Music. He went on to train intensively with the goal of becoming the next great classical pianist. But Hamlisch ultimately decided to play a different tune, a popular one.
He wrote, among others: “The Way We Were” (with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman), “Nobody Does It Better” (lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager), “What I Did for Love” (lyrics by Edward Kleban) and “Through the Eyes of Love” (again with Bayer Sager). He eventually scored 40 motion pictures including “The Way We Were,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “Ordinary People” and “The Sting.” He wrote the music for the groundbreaking Broadway musical “A Chorus Line,” as well as such shows as “They’re Playing Our Song” and “Sweet Smell of Success.”
He won three Oscars (for song and score of “The Way We Were” and for adapting Scott Joplin’s music for “The Sting”), four Grammys, four Emmys, a Tony and three Golden Globes.
And he was incredibly active, with many irons in the fire, right up until he died in August 2012 at 68 of lung failure.
His musical “The Nutty Professor” had just opened in Nashville, he had composed the score to the HBO movie “Behind the Candelabra” and he was tirelessly keeping the Great American Songbook alive, conducting at pops orchestras across the country including the Pasadena Pops.
Hamlisch had been working on a new musical with Dori Berinstein, a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “Legally Blonde: The Musical”).
Also a filmmaker, Berinstein said, upon his death, she thought: “This was an extraordinary man and his story had to be told. I wanted to honor him with a film.”
The result is “Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love,” premiering Friday on PBS’ “American Masters.” The documentary features funny and poignant interviews with Hamlisch’s wife, Terre Blair Hamlisch, as well as Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Steven Soderbergh, Quincy Jones, the Bergmans, Tim Rice, Lucie Arnaz, Bayer Sager, Woody Allen and John Lithgow.
Dominating Berinstein’s documentary is the ebullient, larger-than-life Hamlisch.
“Our conceit from the get-go was that Marvin was going to tell his own story,” said Berinstein. “So we obtained whatever we could find from archival footage and home movies that allowed Marvin to tell his own story.”
His wife, whom he married in 1989, said, “He always used to say, ‘I am so lucky, Terre. I get to do what I love.’ He always used to tell myself, my sister, my nieces, my nephews — ‘Whatever happens, find your passion and what you love and have the self-confidence to do it.’”
“He was really the people’s composer,” said his good friend Melissa Manchester, who introduced the Oscar-nominated “Through the Eyes of Love” (for the movie “Ice Castles”) and appeared many times with Hamlisch in concert. “You know his melodies upon hearing them the first time and want to hear them again. That is a very rare club in the American pantheon of composers.”
He was a composer was a delicious sense of humor. Manchester recalled with great affection Hamlisch playing her song “Come in From the Rain” at a dinner party. “He did a version of it as if Marlene Dietrich was singing it,” said Manchester. “And as if Beethoven was playing it and as if Mozart was playing it!”
Despite his countless successes, Hamlisch did have his struggles. None of his subsequent Broadway musicals matched the success of “A Chorus Line,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
He had high hopes for his 2002 version of “Sweet Smell of Success,” but despite seven Tony nominations and a win for star Lithgow, the show was a disappointment.
“I thought it was important to really understand his creative process and his struggles as an artist,” said Berinstein. “Broadway certainly isn’t easy, and I admire his commitment to pushing himself. He always tried to do something he had never done before.”
During production, Berinstein kept hearing stories about Hamlisch’s extraordinary acts of kindness. After his death, letters poured into Terre Hamlisch about his good deeds.
“He found a doctor for someone,” said Terre Hamlisch. “He paid a hospital bill. He sent flowers. I had no idea. He didn’t talk about it.
“He was helping people all the time, almost like an unsung hero. It is to this day very emotional to me and very humbling.”
‘American Masters: What He Did For Love’
When: 9 p.m. Friday