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Johnny Mandel, Hollywood film composer who wrote theme to ‘MASH,’ dies at 94

Composer Johnny Mandel, 86, at his home in Malibu. (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Johnny Mandel, the arranger, composer and film scorer whose melody for “Shadow of Your Smile” from 1965’s “The Sandpiper” ensured his place in the American songbook, has died at his home in Ojai at age 94.

Mandel also was the arranger and composer of “Suicide Is Painless,” the familiar theme to the movie “MASH” as well as the TV series based on that film. He died Monday, according to Lauren Iossa, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of ASCAP.

“Shadow” won Mandel and lyricist Paul Francis Webster an Academy Award, and the pair also were nominated for “A Time for Love” from 1966’s “An American Dream.” Mandel also won Grammys for his work as an arranger on several notable albums, including Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable.”

During his many years in Hollywood, Mandel composed music for television movies, pilots and specials while along the way writing memorable songs such as “The Shining Sea” with Peggy Lee.

“The wonderful thing about Johnny’s songs is that they are great as instrumentals and, with beautiful lyrics, they become wonderful vehicles for singers,” Ruth Price, a singer and the longtime artistic director of the Jazz Bakery, told the Los Angeles Times in 1996.

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Mandel’s first big song as a composer was “Emily,” from 1964’s “The Americanization of Emily,” which he wrote with lyricist Johnny Mercer. But his biggest hit was “The Shadow of Your Smile,” from the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton film shot in Big Sur.

Mandel said that, at first, “Shadow” did not appear to be getting any traction. Then he recorded it the way he wanted to hear it, with Tony Bennett, and it took off.

“That’s what I enjoy doing the most,” Mandel told CNN’s Dennis Michael in 1992, “taking a project and writing the material, arranging it, recording it and mixing it and producing it — all the way from the beginning to the end. You know, it’s really akin to what a film director does if he has the control to be able to direct from beginning to end.”

Mandel arranged about a third of the tracks on Cole’s “Unforgettable” album, which won the album of the year Grammy in 1991. He also was the arranger and conductor for Shirley Horn’s “Here’s to Life” album in 1991, which won him a Grammy for arranging, and he shared the Grammy for arranging with Quincy Jones for Jones’ 1981 album, “Velas.”

“I arranged music for 20 years before I ever composed, so I can’t divorce orchestration from the process,” Mandel told The Times in 1991. “It’s too personal a thing, the way you mix musical colors, just like a painter. That’s what drew me to music.”

John Alfred Mandel, who lived for many years in Malibu, was born Nov. 23, 1925, in New York City, the son of a garment manufacturer and an aspiring opera singer. Always interested in music and blessed with perfect pitch, at 13 he began taking lessons in arranging with bandleader Van Alexander. After attending the New York Military Academy and studying at the Manhattan and Juilliard schools of music, he played trumpet with Joe Venuti’s orchestra while still in his teens.

He later played the trombone and did arrangements for Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Georgie Auld, Henry Jerome, Alvino Rey, Buddy Rich and Elliot Lawrence. In 1953, Mandel traveled with Count Basie’s band, which he often said was one of the best times of his career.

“The thing about Basie is that he always made you feel wonderful, whether he was playing music or not,” Mandel told The Times in 1991. He said he “never had a bad moment with that band.”

Once Mandel went into composing and arranging, he wrote scores for radio and TV — including Sid Caesar-Imogene Coca’s “Your Show of Shows” — and, after moving to Los Angeles in 1953, the movies, starting with the arrangements for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’ “You’re Never Too Young.”

Several years later, Mandel made his mark in Hollywood on Robert Wise’s 1958 film, “I Want to Live!,” a score that was considered a departure for movies because it was all jazz. The jittery score featuring Gerry Mulligan’s combo suited the film noir, which won an Oscar for Susan Hayward in her role as Barbara Graham, a sometime prostitute and small-time crook who is wrongly convicted of murder and executed.

When Frank Sinatra left Capitol Records in the 1960s for his own label, Reprise, Mandel worked on the singer’s jazzy first Reprise album, “Ring-a-Ding-Ding!” The recording “epitomizes the jaunty, insouciant, verge-of-overbearing Sinatra,” one critic said of the album.

Mandel later wrote music for “The Americanization of Emily,” “Harper,” “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” “Point Blank,” “Being There” and “The Verdict.” For 1970’s “MASH,” he composed music to lyrics written by Michael Altman, the son of the film’s director, Robert Altman.

More recently, Mandel produced or arranged music for Barbra Streisand, Diana Krall and Willie Nelson.

He is survived by his daughter Marissa.

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(c) 2020 the Los Angeles Times

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