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Michel Legrand, the acclaimed and prolific French composer who won Academy Awards for his work in The Thomas Crown Affair, Summer of ’42 and Yentl, died Saturday in Paris. He was 86.
“This is with great sadness that we have to announce the passing away of our friend and artist Michel Legrand, who left us peacefully this Saturday 26th January,” his management company said in a statement. “He changed the meaning of music in films with his sense of rhythm and his absolute passion for life.”
In a career that spanned seven decades and 200 compositions, the arranger, conductor and jazz pianist also scored musical soundtracks for Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967); John Sturges’ Ice Station Zebra (1968); Norman Jewison’s Best Friends (1982); and Orson Welles’ F for Fake (1973) and his recently released The Other Side of the Wind (2018).
Legrand’s unrivaled skill and versatility also can be heard across the film scores of Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962), Le Mans (1971), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Atlantic City (1980), Never Say Never Again (1983) and the acclaimed 1971 ABC telefilm Brian’s Song.
In total, Legrand received 13 career Oscar nominations and shared the bulk of them with lyricists Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman, with whom he collaborated on Yentl (1983), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), The Happy Ending (1969) and Pieces of Dreams (1970).
French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his condolences to Legrand’s wife and children, hailing him as an “indefatigable genius. … His unique tunes that run through our heads and are hummed in the streets have become like the soundtracks of our lives,” he said.
Legrand performed onstage just last month and was still composing and practicing piano an hour a day even as fatigue increasingly forced him to economize his energy, said Claire de Castellane, a musician and producer who organized a series of recent solo piano concerts by Legrand.
For “The Windmills of Your Mind,” the key song in The Thomas Crown Affair, Jewison approached the Bergmans to write a song that made the audience feel anxious about Steve McQueen’s character, who had just masterminded a bank robbery and was now flying in his glider.
Legrand was a house guest of the Bergmans at the time. “Michel writes like you turn on a faucet,” Marilyn recalled in a 2014 interview. He churned out eight different melodies for the one scene before all three agreed upon a baroque-style tune: “It’s kind of never-ending, like the flying of a glider,” she said.
Although the sole recipient of the Oscar for dramatic score for Summer of ’42 (1971), Legrand acknowledged in his acceptance speech the collaborative effort behind the scenes: “I also want to thank, you know, many people that we don’t thank very often, or not enough often to me, which are all the musicians, all the marvelous musicians that you have in California.”
For Barbra Streisand’s Yentl, Legrand received Oscar nominations for the songs “The Way He Makes Me Feel” and “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” and for its score.
“I wanted to do Yentl because I loved Barbra. I admired Barbra very much. I wanted to do Yentl because I love the Bergmans; I love to work with them,” he told BBC Radio in 2003. “And the story doesn’t count for me. That’s the contrary. Because the priority is who’s going to direct it, who’s going to sing it, who’s going to write it? It could have been any story, because I knew that we would come up with something extraordinary, the quality of the extraordinary. That’s it.”
Legrand collaborated with other giants of the industry, including Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne and Frank Sinatra. In 2010, he celebrated 50 years in show business with a star-studded tribute at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Along with his Academy Awards, Legrand won a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and five Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1990.
“Ever since I was a boy, my ambition has been to live completely surrounded by music. My dream is not to miss out on anything. That’s why I’ve never settled on one musical discipline,” he wrote on his website. “I love playing, conducting, singing and writing, and in all styles. So I turn my hand to everything — not just a bit of everything. Quite the opposite. I do all these activities at once, seriously, sincerely and with deep commitment.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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