Johnny Mandel, composer who gave ‘M*A*S*H’ its theme song, dies at 94

By TIM GREIVING | Special to The Washington Post | Published: June 30, 2020

Johnny Mandel, the composer who gave “M*A*S*H” its theme song, “Suicide Is Painless,” who wrote the Oscar-winning “The Shadow of Your Smile” for “The Sandpiper,” and whose talents as an arranger were employed by entertainers as varied as Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, died June 29 at his home in Ojai, Calif. He was 94.

The cause was a heart ailment, said his daughter, Marissa Mandel.

Mandel began his career as a trumpeter and trombonist with top big bands of the 1940s and early 1950s. As rock began to supplant jazz — “some of the best players in the world were starving,” he later said — he transitioned to arranging music for Las Vegas floor shows. He entered the new medium of television, writing background music for programs such as Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” and, by the late 1950s, had slipped easily into Hollywood film scoring.

He injected jazz — the idiom he knew best — into movie music just as the old studio system and its romantic symphonic language were dying. He delivered what was widely seen as his finest work in his debut, “I Want to Live!” (1958), director Robert Wise’s Oscar-nominated film about a prostitute (Susan Hayward) on death row for a murder she didn’t commit.

Mandel hired top-flight musicians for the film score, among them trumpeter Art Farmer, trombonist Frank Rosolino, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and drummer Shelly Manne. He underlaid moments of suspense with rumbling jazz percussion and made the execution scene queasier with a slinking piccolo motif over a drooping swing rhythm.

One of the first pure jazz soundtracks ever written for a film, it vividly announced Mandel as a new force in the medium. He remained in demand as an arranger for jazz albums, with credits including Sinatra’s “Ring-a-Ding-Ding!” and Jo Stafford’s dazzling “Jo + Jazz,” but he mostly focused on his movie career.

He won an Academy Award for best original song for the gentle, bossa nova-tinged “The Shadow of Your Smile,” from the 1965 romantic drama “The Sandpiper” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He received an Oscar nomination for “A Time for Love” from “An American Dream” (1966), a crime story with Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh. Both tunes featured lyrics by Paul Francis Webster.

Mandel demonstrated his versatility in a range of other A-list films. He worked on “Harper” (1966), a sleuthing yarn starring Paul Newman as a self-destructive detective; “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” (1966), a hit Cold War comedy with Carl Reiner; “Point Blank” (1967), a stylish crime drama with Lee Marvin; and “The Last Detail” (1973), an acclaimed military comedy-drama with Jack Nicholson.

But “Suicide Is Painless” became Mandel’s musical calling card. The film “M*A*S*H” (1970), set in a mobile Army surgical hospital during the Korean War, was director Robert Altman’s absurdist masterpiece about war, and it captured the sentiments of the Vietnam era with its cavorting doctors and their disdain for authority and social mores.

Altman commissioned Mandel to write the song for the “Last Supper” tableau involving the surgeons planning the ostensible suicide of the camp dentist. The director planned to write the lyrics himself but, after an initial attempt, informed Mandel that he couldn’t “write anything nearly as stupid as what we need,” Mandel told the website JazzWax in 2008. Altman ultimately used words penned by his teenage son, Mike, and Mandel provided the melody.

The song begins:

“Through early morning fog I see

“Visions of the things to be

“The pains that are withheld for me

“I realize and I can see

“That suicide is painless

“It brings on many changes

“And I can take or leave it if I please.”

Altman liked the song — a folksy ballad for acoustic guitar and male quartet — and moved it to the title sequence, over scenes of helicopters. The decision enraged Mandel, who said it was “the stupidest thing I have ever seen” and stormed out of the screening.

But the picture became an Oscar-nominated hit, and “Suicide Is Painless” saturated pop culture even further in instrumental form as the theme for the spinoff TV series that ran from 1972 to 1983.

His other movie songs — including the ballad “Close Enough for Love” from “Agatha” (1979) with lyricist Paul Williams — were covered by esteemed artists including Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Perry Como and Barbra Streisand. Bill Evans’ exquisite jazz arrangement of “Emily,” a waltz Mandel wrote for “The Americanization of Emily” (1964) with lyricist Johnny Mercer, became part of the pianist’s lifetime repertoire.

Mandel was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010. The next year, he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.

John Alfred Mandel was born in New York City on Nov. 23, 1925. His father, a garment manufacturer, died when Johnny was 12. His mother, an aspiring opera singer, channeled her musical ambitions into her son, who had perfect pitch.

He began writing arrangements in his youth, inspired by late nights listening to big bands on the radio.

“What drew me into music was the magic and the alchemy of combining this instrument with that instrument and getting these big clusters of different sounds,” he once told a publication of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. “I was really interested in painting with the orchestra.”

He later took lessons in arranging from Van Alexander, who had co-written the hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” for Ella Fitzgerald and the Chick Webb Orchestra, and studied piano before switching to the trumpet and trombone. “I wanted to play an instrument you could kiss,” he later quipped.

With older musicians away in World War II, Mandel soon found himself playing gigs every night with the likes of Joe Venuti, Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Rich and Alvino Rey. The progressive jazz bandleader Boyd Raeburn, tired of his old charts, asked the young arranger to write new ones, and he did the same for Henry Jerome’s band.

Also in Jerome’s outfit was saxophonist Alan Greenspan, the future Federal Reserve chairman. “We were always paid on time because Alan handled the payroll,” Mandel told the reference guide Contemporary Musicians.

During the next several years, he poured out compositions, including “Not Really the Blues” for Woody Herman, “Hershey Bar” for Stan Getz, “Tommyhawk” for Chet Baker and “Low Life” for Count Basie. By the mid-1950s, he had moved to Los Angeles to break into movie work.

He worked with Disney studios in the 1970s on the live-action family features “Escape to Witch Mountain” and “Freaky Friday.” He later did the soundtrack for “Being There” (1979), starring Peter Sellers as a simpleton mistaken for a genius, and “Caddyshack” (1980), the country-club romp with Bill Murray and Chevy Chase.

Mandel’s last score of note was for “The Verdict” (1982), a legal drama starring Newman as an alcoholic lawyer. He gradually phased out of scoring but continued working in recorded music.

He did arrangements on Natalie Cole’s 1991 album “Unforgettable … With Love,” which featured a posthumous duet with her late father, Nat King Cole, and won a Grammy for album of the year. Mandel won another Grammy, and gave Shirley Horn a late-career resurgence, when he arranged pieces for her 1992 album “Here’s to Life.”

He also worked on “Will You Be There,” a 1991 song for Michael Jackson, and “When I Look in Your Eyes,” a 1999 album for Diana Krall. His last credit was arranging the orchestral accompaniment for Streisand’s 2009 standards album “Love Is the Answer,” which summited the Billboard chart.

His first marriage, to Lois Lee, ended in divorce. In 1970, he married Martha Blaner, who died in 2019. His daughter, of Ojai, was his only immediate survivor.

Mandel wryly corrected the mistaken assumption, which he said he frequently encountered, that “Suicide Is Painless” had made him a fortune.

“M*A*S*H” is “shown a hundred times a day, but it’s in syndication,” he told the National Association of Music Merchants in 2009. “Usually, the rates for cable are very low. So everyone thinks I’m a millionaire or a billionaire or something. They treat me with great deference, and I’m tempted to say, ‘Forget it.’ But I don’t.”

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