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Writing the Book: Earle Hagen

Retired composer and author Earle Hagen talks about his 40-year career scoring for film and television.

By Deborah Young

Excerpted from FSM Vol. 6, No. 8, on sale now...

From my earliest memory both television and movie music have played a huge role in my psyche. While it is difficult to choose my favorite film score, when it comes to TV there is no contest: I SPY by Earle Hagen. The entire series is now being released on DVD. Mr. Hagen has been an idol of mine since 1965, and I recently had the great pleasure of asking him about this series and his varied career.

When it comes to film scoring, Earle Hagen wrote the book -- literally. That book, Scoring for Films, (written in 1971) was for two decades the definitive text on the craft of music for cinema and television. Acclaimed by his Hollywood peers, this work has been a part of courses on film scoring in universities and conservatories across America.

For years Earle Hagen's schedule had him juggling as many as five weekly shows simultaneously, giving him "16-hour workdays, seven days a week, for 40 weeks a year. In the 12 weeks off between seasons, if anyone mentioned music to me, I would kill."

In 1965, he was asked to score Sheldon Leonard's new brainchild: I SPY, an unconventional series that broke ground on several levels. It would star Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, an interracial teaming that was a first for episodic television. It was a tale of two easy-going but very capable spies with tennis as their cover, shot in locales around the world -- another first.

"I SPY was the first real challenge for me," says Hagen. "The changing panoramas of countries and plot lines were extremely daunting. It never occurred to Sheldon that I might not be able to deliver that kind of product. But then, it never occurred to me, either. It was a fun show for music, and adventure. Sheldon gave me full rein, and we never looked back. I tried to write a self-contained score for each episode. It was like scoring an hour movie a week. That kind of show will never happen again in television. With everything in the industry done by synthesizer composers who record directly onto tape, one cannot but believe this sad fact to be true."

Before I SPY began filming, Sheldon and his wife took the Hagens on a round-the-world scouting mission for shooting locations. "Everywhere we went, I sampled the indigenous music and bought records," Hagen recalls, "I can't tell you how many times I followed a group of Mariachis around with a jug of Tequila in one hand and a battery-operated tape recorder in the other."

"Most Eastern cultures have their own scales," he explains, "The Thai scale is very different from the Vietnamese, or Japanese scales. Once you are familiar with what makes a particular country tick, it's not so hard to write in that style. I always chose to Westernize the music for the audience÷I received the scripts as soon as Sheldon okayed them for production. We generally prepared 13 scripts before the company left home. There were many shows where I had to provide a little visual music before the company hit the road. I did not do my thing until the picture was edited and cut to a final version. Sound effects men and composers were low on the totem pole."

Earle Hagen could not have been more innovative or original with I SPY. The scores he wrote were produced in Los Angeles but he frequently returned to record live and on location. The result was that every one of the 82 episodes received an original score (excluding the main themes, of course); two-thirds of those were composed by Hagen, with the rest created by distinguished composer and friend, Hugo Friedhofer. The result was what he named "semi-jazz," a perfect marriage of local themes with the American sound. You never forgot whom you were rooting for, or where they were.

The main title was the first to feature graphic art, live action and animation, all cut to a specific tempo that he had requested. Listen to that first pulsing primal heartbeat, as you see the shadow of a tennis player, moving against a flow of foreign names. Every upward sweep of his racket is punctuated by the pluck of a violin, and the tension is built by saxophone. Then, the graceful cipher wheels slowly and his racket has become a handgun. The weapon fires; the detritus is red and assembles to form the words I SPY. The main theme is rendered fully by the burst of violins over the black, white and red of the title, eliciting both the imminent tension of the series and the embraceable humanity of its two players. As the title drives to its pounding conclusion, a split-screen "preview" of the hour is wrought under the arresting eyes of Robert Culp. Fans of Stewart Copeland's eclectic, dissonant score for The Equalizer might just recognize Hagen's I SPY as a major influence.

A friend of mine recently said she recalled I SPY as being a lark -- but this was not always the case. The series opener: "So Long Patrick Henry," with its myriad of references to slavery and nuanced black/white tension, could not have been more serious. However there is an offsetting, six-minute, suspenseful but charming chase scene in Hong Kong. The action begins with big-band brassiness emphasized by the ever-closer thugs as Kelly (Culp) and Scotty (Cosby) run lightly as boys along the harbor front over godown rooftops -- they reach a dead end and then sprint upward. And immediately, as they strike higher ground, turning from the industrial area to the Chinese tenements, we pick up (like a bright afterthought) a single thread -- one oriental repetitive note -- all that is needed to reinforce their environment.

In "Time of the Knife," there is a lovely sad flute solo accompanied by a Japanese samisen as Kelly and his friend's widow stroll a quiet garden. If not for the music, that scene, like so many others, would lose its pathos. Many times the unerringly perfect themes underline exactly what the director is trying to say: the flawed trumpet playing a sour version of "Auld Lang Syne" during the "Cup of Kindness" betrayal scene; the lovely solo trumpet cadenza (reminiscent of David Amram's Manchurian Candidate) when Scott unravels while gazing at Rodin's "The Thinker"; or the impact of the fight scene in "Laya": completely soundless except for that wild clarinet.

The remarkable thing is the freshness of Hagen's approach, as in his use of some linear themes. For example, there is Scotty's saucy trumpet theme, or the big-band sound for some foot chase themes (before the routine car chases). I preferred his subtlety, his music written for an individual character. In "Tatia," he uses a subdued dreamy jazz theme that is never repeated anywhere.

The two best episodes for music are "The Warlord" and "Home to Judgment." "The Warlord" borrows heavily on Oriental imagery for the action sequences (always punctuated by jazz -- yet somehow it works) using snare drums and brass. However, then he changes completely, and takes a plangent delicate note for the love theme between Chuang Tzu, (the Warlord) and Katherine, caught between their separate worlds. It is somber, powerful and almost painful -- one of the saddest pieces of music I have ever heard.

Robert Culp, who wrote seven episodes, confesses, "I don't really understand the techniques involved, but what I do know about is what makes a picture work. I appreciate how much a drama is enhanced by its score. Its what I care about, and Earle Hagen made the picture work. Without him, I cannot imagine I SPY being able to achieve the rhythms that it did."

Hagen was thrice nominated for an Emmy Award for I SPY. He won for the bittersweet episode called "Laya," filmed in Greece, which ended with a vocal rendition of his theme, "A Voice in the Wind," sung by Shelby Flint. "Laya," and an episode entitled "Mainly on the Plains," featuring Boris Karloff, are his two favorites.

After the untimely demise of I SPY in 1968, Earle continued to compose. A partial list includes such memorable scores as Accidental Family, Gomer Pyle, That Girl, Rango, Mayberry RFD, Mary Hartman, Movin' On, Eight Is Enough, The Dukes of Hazzardand Mike Hammer. He also found time to score various movies of the week.

In addition to his Emmy for I SPY, Earle was nominated for an Emmy in musical direction for the Tammy Wynette story, Stand By Your Man. In November, 2000, he received the prestigious "Irving Kostal Award," from ASMAC, (The American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers). His latest book, Memoirs of a Famous Composer Nobody Ever Heard Of, published by Xlibris, a division of Random House, is due out this year.

Image Entertainment is releasing all 82 I SPY DVDs in their original glory. The music by Earle Hagen has not lost any of its power to captivate.

For more information on Earle Hagen, visit his website:

More information about I SPY can be found at the websites and I --

For the full version of this article, see FSM Vol. 6, No. 8, on sale now...

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