Morton Stevens: Obscure composer, famous tune

Morton Stevens (1929-1991)

Morton Stevens (1929-1991)

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

The name Morton Stevens is barely known by the general public. Yet his signature piece of work — the theme to Hawaii Five-O (or Five-0 as it’s spelled for the revival series that began in 2010) — is almost universally recognized.

In the 1950s, Stevens worked for Sammy Davis Jr. as his music arranger. Then, in 1960, Davis had the chance to perform a dramatic role in The Patsy, an episode of The General Electric Theater, an anthology series.

According to television and film music historian Jon Burlingame (in an audio commentary for the DVD set for the Thriller anthology show hosted by Boris Karloff), Davis wanted Stevens to score the episode. Stevens got the assignment and made a career switch.

Stevens quickly began scoring a variety of genres, including Westerns, crime dramas and horror (the aforementioned Thriller series). And then there were his espionage-show efforts.

Stevens was the first composer to follow Jerry Goldsmith with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. In fact, the very first piece of U.N.C.L.E. music — a few seconds accompanying the U.N.C.L.E. global logo at the start of The Vulcan Affair, first broadcast on Sept. 22, 1964 — was composed by Stevens.

When Goldsmith did the pilot, the show was to be titled Solo. When the show began production of series episodes, the name was changed to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. With that change, the globe logo was devised and it would be shown at the very start of each episode.

Stevens’ “insignia” U.N.C.L.E. music (as it’s known) led off the first 14 episodes of the show. Stevens also did the first new arrangement of Goldsmith’s theme, which first appeared with the 15th episode, The Deadly Decoy Affair. It would be used for almost all of the second half of the second season.

In all, Stevens did four original U.N.C.L.E. scores but his music was frequently re-used in first-season U.N.C.L.E. episodes without an original score. Often, these “stock scores” paired Goldsmith music (composed for three episodes) with that of Stevens. Their styles melded well.

In April of 1965, Stevens became the head of CBS’ West Coast music operation involved with the network’s in-house productions. As a result, he assigned other composers on CBS productions while taking on some jobs himself.

In that capacity, he scored the 1968 pilot for Hawaii Five-O. In that production, Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) locked horns with Chinese spy Wo Fat (Khigh Dheigh), giving the crime drama a spy twist from the start.

In the first season of the show, Stevens was only credited for an episode’s score (“Music by”) or, on some episodes for “music supervision.”

However, if another composer was credited for an episode, Stevens didn’t get a mention. That was consistent with CBS policy at the time, which denied theme credits for many series, including Gunsmoke, which ran on the the network for 20 years.

A Morton Stevens title card for a first-season episode of Hawaii Five-O

A Morton Stevens title card for a first-season episode of Hawaii Five-O

Early in the show’s second season, Stevens did get a “theme by” credit for episodes where he didn’t provide the score. (When Stevens did provide an original score, he still got a “music by” credit.).

Eventually, the theme had to be turned into a song. Appropriately, Sammy Davis Jr. performed it.

Still, despite how famous the theme became — decades later, it’s regularly performed by marching bands — fame eluded Stevens.

Stevens never moved in a major way into scoring movies unlike contemporaries of his such as John Williams (who, ironically, received the job of scoring the 1969 Steve McQueen film The Reivers from Stevens when CBS was releasing films, according to the Burlingame Thriller commentary track) and Lalo Schifrin.

Stevens died in 1991. His Five-O theme outlived him, however. When the 2010 version of the show debuted, its pilot originally had a “rock music” arrangement that made the rounds on social media before the new show’s debut.

It wasn’t received well. The new series quickly commissioned a more traditional sounding version, which debuted at the 2010 San Diego Comic Book Con. Some of the musicians who performed the theme had worked on the original 1968-80 series.

While Stevens gets a credit on the current series, unfortunately it’s during the end titles. Stevens’ credit flashes by so quickly, you can’t really see it. Regardless, his legacy continues.

 

Richard Markowitz’s wild wild TV scoring career

A sampling of Richard Markowitz's title cards.

A sampling of Richard Markowitz’s title cards.

Another in a series about unsung heroes of television.

Composer Richard Markowitz, over more than three decades, produced one of the most memorable television themes and contributed to many series.

Yet, more than 20 years after his death, Markowitz is far from a household name. With each passing year, Markowitz passes further into obscurity, save for those few (led by writer Jon Burlingame) who follow the careers of television composers.

Markowitz’s primary legacy is the theme to The Wild Wild West. The composer scored the pilot to the 1965-69 series’ pilot. Originally, CBS hired Dimitri Tiomkin (who earlier wrote the theme song to the network’s Rawhide series) to write the show’s theme song.

According to a Markowitz audio interview that’s an extra on the season one set of The Wild Wild West, producer Michael Garrison didn’t want the Tiomkin theme (which Markowitz described as a ballad). Markowitz, according to this account, was a last-minute hire. Markowitz, in the interview, says he was paid considerably less than Tiomkin.

Regardless, Markowitz came up with a classic theme. During the run of the show, Markowitz only received a credit (“Music Composed and Conducted by”) for episodes he scored. (According to his IMDB.COM ENTRY, that was 29 of the show’s 104 episodes). He wasn’t credited for the theme.  Thus, when other composers did scores for the show, there was no mention of Markowitz.

It wasn’t until 1979’s The Wild Wild West Revisited TV movie that Markowitz an on-screen credit for his greatest creation. The theme showed up in a scene in the 1999 Wild Wild West theatrical movie, but the composer yet again didn’t get an on-screen credit.

Also, according to that same audio interview, Markowitz had clashes with Morton Stevens, who took charge of CBS’s West Coast music operation in the spring of 1965. That contributed to Markowitz not being around when the show concluded with the 1968-69 season.

Despite that, Markowitz had too much talent for other television productions to ignore.

Quinn Martin’s QM Productions hired him frequently (including 16 original scores for The FBI, an episode of The Invaders and some episodes of The Streets of San Frnacisco). He scored nine episodes of Mission: Impossible, including the show’s only three-part story. Universal’s TV operation was another frequent employer, including 71 episodes of Murder, She Wrote.

Markowitz died on Dec. 6, 1994 at the age of 68.

50th anniversary of The Wild Wild West’s best episode

End title images for The Night of the Murderous Spring

End title images for The Night of the Murderous Spring

April 15 is the 50th anniversary of what may be the best episode of The Wild Wild West, The Night of the Murderous Spring. If not the series’ best outing, it’s in the conversation.

It was the next-to-last episode of West’s first season and the fourth to feature Michael Dunn as Dr. Loveless.

The episode, written by John Kneubuhl (creator of Dr. Loveless) and directed by Richard Donner, removed all of the limits from the villain’s initial encounters with U.S. Secret Service agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin).

Loveless is determined to kill humanity to restore Earth’s ecological balance. The villain has come up with a chemical, when mixed with water, will spur men to hallucinate and go into a murderous rage.

Loveless’ first test subject is James West himself. The Secret Service agent imagines he kills his partner.

That’s just the start. Loveless conducts another test where his lackeys kill each other. Loveless does so simply to demonstrate to West and Gordon he means business.

As an aside, one of Loveless’ thugs is played by Leonard Falk, the real life father of Robert Conrad.

This was not Loveless’ final appearance on the show. But it was arguably the most memorable. The only significance weakness was the episode didn’t have an original score, forcing music supervisor Morton Stevens to dip into the music library of CBS. Among the music used is the original Dr. Loveless theme, composed by Robert Drasnin, who scored the first Loveless episode of the series.

 

40th anniversary of Hawaii Five-O’s Nine Dragons

Wo Fat triumphs (for a while) over McGarrett in Nine Dragons

Wo Fat triumphs (for a while) over McGarrett in Nine Dragons

This year marks the 40th anniversary of one of the best episodes of the original Hawaii Five-O series, the two-hour Nine Dragons.

The first episode of the 1976-77 season was one of the best encounters between the original Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) and the original Wo Fat (Khigh Dhiegh).

The episode also featured the most James Bond-like plot of the original 1968-80 series. Wo Fat intends to lead a coup of China, then launch a preemptive nuclear attack on the United States.

To ensure no other nations retaliate, Wo Fat abducts McGarrett. The lawman, under torture, is recorded as saying the U.S. was responsible for the deaths of Chinese leadership (that Wo Fat plans to accomplish). The film will be broadcast as the attack against the U.S. takes place, causing other countries to not attack China.

All of this, of course, is rather fantastic. Nevertheless, it features one of the best performances by Khigh Diegh as Wo Fat. The actor (1910-1991) essentially gets a chance to meld his two best-known characters: Wo Fat and the Chinese brain washing expert in the 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate.

What’s more, Jack Lord’s McGarrett, for once in the series, is utterly defeated, at least for a time. Despite McGarrett’s resistance, he eventually gives in. McGarrett, naturally, rallies and escapes. McGarrett has no memory of the defeat until he gets a chance to view the film shortly before Wo Fat intends to use it.

Nine Dragons included contributions from one of Five-O’s best writers (Jerome Coopersmith, his next-to-last script) and directors (Michael O’Herlihy, his final effort for the series). Above all, it features one of the best scores for the show by Morton Stevens, who composed the classic Five-O theme.

Finally, the episode includes on-location filming in Hong Kong, a first for the show. To defray the cost, CBS struck a deal with Air Siam (everybody in the epiosde who takes a flight flies on Air Siam).

Five-O would not have such on-location filming until the end of the 11th season, where a two-hour episode was filmed in Singapore (The Year of the Horse), that included one-time 007 George Lazenby.

Marching bands prove when spy music is part of society

You know when spy music has become part of the fabric of society when it’s performed by a marching band.

Marching bands, by definition, don’t perform edgy music. Such bands perform music is, more or less, universally accepted.

On Sept. 19, the Ohio State University marching band performed various James Bond music during half time of a football game. The 007 fans who frequent his website will recognize every tune played.

When it comes to spy (or spy-like) television themes that the general public relates to, marching bands are one place to look.

Here’s a marching band playing Lalo Schifrin’s theme for Mission: Impossible:

Also, Morton Stevens’ Hawaii Five-O theme is a favorite for marching bands. Here’s a sample, performed by the University of Minnesota marching band, based a long way from Hawaii:

 

Morton Stevens heirs sue CBS over Five-O theme

Morton Stevens (1929-1991)

Morton Stevens (1929-1991)

Shoutout to Craig Henderson for bringing this to our attention.

The heirs of composer Morton Stevens have sued CBS over the theme to Hawaii Five-O, according to STORY IN THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER.

Here’s an excerpt:

Stevens died in 1991, which, according to a complaint filed in California federal court, was about six years before the renewal copyright term for the Hawaii Five-0 theme commenced. That’s important because under copyright law, for works created before 1978, when an author dies before the original term of a copyright grant expires, rights revert to the heirs.

Notwithstanding this quirk of copyright law, CBS is said to have filed a renewal registration for the theme in 1997. The lawsuit says that CBS didn’t have the right to do this.

CBS was interested as early as 1997 in coming out with a new Five-O. That year, it commissioned a pilot where members of the original Five-O team teamed up with the current Five-O to investigate the shooting of Gov. Dan Williams (James MacArthur). The pilot didn’t result in a series and that production has never received a public airing. Clips have shown up on YouTube and the pilot included the Stevens theme.

In 2010, CBS came out with a rebooted Five-0 (now spelled with a zero instead of a capital O) with all-new versions of Steve McGarrett & Co. That show, now in its fifth season, also uses the Stevens theme. Stevens receives a credit in very tiny type in the end titles.

To read The Hollywood Reporter story, CLICK HERE.

U.N.C.L.E. movie score recording starts Sept. 24

Shoutout to @laneyboggs2001 at Twitter who re-Tweeted the composer as the postings went online.

Daniel Pemberton, composer for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie, took to Twitter to announce he’ll begin recording his score tomorrow, Sept. 24.

Pemberton follows in the footsteps of Jerry Goldsmith (who scored the pilot for the 1964-68 television series and composed its theme music), Morton Stevens, Lalo Schifrin, Gerald Fried and others as U.N.C.L.E. composers. Pemberton didn’t provide a lot of details. For example, he didn’t say if Goldsmith’s theme is incorporated into the score.

Still, after reshoots and test screenings, news — delivered one day after the show’s 50th anniversary — showed how the movie’s post production is proceeding. It’s scheduled to be released in August 2015.

Here are three of the Twitter postings:

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