Think of Marvin Hamlisch, and it’s impossible not to think of many of the most memorable film and stage melodies of the past 40-plus years.
The late, hugely personable talent and very rare PEGOT — winner of a Pulitzer Prize, four Emmy Awards, four Grammys, three Oscars and a Tony — composed some artists’ biggest hits, such as Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were” and Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” (from the James Bond movie “The Spy Who Loved Me”), and refitted Scott Joplin’s ragtime sounds for “The Sting.”
Hamlisch also gave Broadway the hits “A Chorus Line” and “They’re Playing Our Song” and kept at his craft to the end, scoring the HBO drama “Behind the Candelabra” just before his passing in August 2012.
The PBS series “American Masters” ends its 27th season with producer-director-writer Dori Berinstein’s documentary “Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love” Friday, Dec. 27 (check local listings). The music master tells much of his own story via clips from the many interviews he gave.
Friends, relatives and associates comment as well, with Streisand, Simon, Lucie Arnaz, John Lithgow, Ann-Margret, Christopher Walken, Melissa Manchester, Idina Menzel, Kelli O’Hara, Brian d’Arcy James, Quincy Jones, director Steven Soderbergh, baseball veteran Joe Torre, and lyricists Carole Bayer Sager and Alan and Marilyn Bergman among those seen.
Also featured is someone particularly pivotal to Hamlisch’s life: his wife of nearly 23 years, television personality Terre Blair Hamlisch. His courtship of her — involving months of bicoastal phone calls and a first-date questionnaire that she slipped to him under her hotel room door before opening it (and that she still has, since he saved it) — well could have been the plot of one of the romantic comedies Hamlisch scored.
“One of the things that’s quite impressive about this,” Blair Hamlisch says to Zap2it, “is how many people wanted to do it for Marvin, which is a testament to the love and respect that people have for him. To see so many people who wanted to do something like this, and normally wouldn’t do it, is very touching.
“Several themes come out in it,” Blair Hamlisch notes of the program, “and one is his genius. He was a child prodigy. I think it also comes out how generous he was … the most generous person I’ve ever met and probably ever will. Right before he died, he said to me in the car, ‘I wonder if people know I don’t say “no.” I never say “no” unless there’s a scheduling conflict.’ It sort of left me speechless, but I realized that over all these years, that’s exactly what he did. He was always helping people. That can’t be underestimated.”
And it’s been reaffirmed to Blair Hamlisch at unexpected times.
“I used to get taxis in the city [New York],” she says, “and I’d be told, ‘Do you know he gave me money for my child’s operation?’ Or ‘He found a doctor for us.’ He paid many people’s hospital bills, and he’d walk older ladies to the parking lot after concerts if they were afraid. And he always went to the National Institute of Health at the holidays to perform for the families of patients who were terminally ill. It goes on and on, and what was surprising even to me was the depth and the extent to which he did it.”
Not only was Arnaz close to Hamlisch personally, he helped furnish her Broadway debut by scoring the Neil Simon-written musical “They’re Playing Our Song,” inspired by Hamlisch’s earlier relationship with Sager (who wrote the lyrics for the show’s songs).
Arnaz says, “I love documentaries, and I made one (‘Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie,’ a portrait of her showbiz legend parents, for which she won an Emmy) without ever knowing how. It’s hard to ride the fine line so that it doesn’t just sound like you’re over-the-top paying tribute to somebody, which can get kind of dull. You have to get to the truth about a person’s life, no matter how fabulous they were, and this has all that in there. It makes you cry, it makes you laugh, and it’s totally Marvin.
“The important thing about making a piece like this,” Arnaz continues, “is to show other people that even the most brilliant geniuses walking among us have had moments where they doubted they could ever do anything good again. Marvin had a lot of times like that; the business was changing, but – and I don’t say this lightly – he was extraordinarily talented. He was scary-smart as far as music goes. His facility to come up with things immediately was frightening to me sometimes.”
However, Arnaz stresses “the humor and the kindness on top of it, so not only was he a genius to work with but also a nice guy to have dinner with and go to rehearsal with. There aren’t many of those. And he was so great with audiences. We did a lot of symphony dates together the last eight years or so. Big, 60-piece orchestras can seem intimidating to certain audience members, especially young people, and Marvin always made it so accessible. There was something for everybody.”
Both Arnaz and Blair Hamlisch recall Hamlisch’s disappointment that his 2002 stage musical version of the classic gossip columnist movie drama “Sweet Smell of Success” wasn’t better received, though star Lithgow earned a Tony for it. “It didn’t get its fair shake,” Arnaz reflects. “We weren’t ready for it, but some of Marvin’s best music is in it.”
Discussing the man she calls “not only my husband but my best friend,” Blair Hamlisch remembers her spouse as “bigger than life. No matter how sad I would get, he would laugh me out of it, so it was inevitable that he had the ability to transcend people’s moods by giving them the joy of music. And his ability to relate to people made that even more profound.
“His brain was quicker than lightning, and I think sometimes, he needed patience for all of us to catch up. I was lucky to be married to a genius … and a bighearted one at that.”