Jack Sheldon, Famed Trumpeter and Merv Griffin Sidekick, Dies at 88

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Jack Sheldon

He also voiced singing characters on 'Schoolhouse Rock!' and was an actor on the 1960s comedy 'Run, Buddy Run.'

Jack Sheldon, the extraordinary West Coast jazz trumpeter and singer who played "The Shadow of Your Smile" for the big screen, served as Merv Griffin's sidekick and voiced characters on Schoolhouse Rock!, has died. He was 88.

Sheldon died Friday of natural causes in his Hollywood Hills home, Dianne Jimenez, his longtime manager and partner, announced. 

Sheldon performed the haunting "The Shadow of Your Smile" on the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton drama The Sandpiper (1965), and the tune, written by Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster, won the Grammy Award for song of the year and the Academy Award for best original song.

He also played one of the many versions of "The Long Goodbye" on Robert Altman's 1973 classic that starred Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe and was heard and/or seen in other films including Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Save the Tiger (1973), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Mommie Dearest (1981), Mr. Saturday Night (1992), Arachnophobia (1990) and For the Boys (1991).

Tony Gieske, the late jazz reviewer for The Hollywood Reporter, once described Sheldon's "incomparable trumpet sound" as "rich and full as something I wish I could think of to compare it to — a bunch of dewy green grapes?"

On Griffin's long-running TV talk show that began in 1962, the fun-loving Sheldon was front and center for 16 years after being hired for Mort Lindsey's band and enjoyed rich comic banter with the host, a big band singer himself. Griffin's favorite song was "The Shadow of Your Smile," and Sheldon performed it at Griffin's funeral in 2007.

Sheldon also provided the voice for the Conjunction Conductor and performed as proposed legislation in the memorable piece "I'm Just a Bill" on the Saturday morning kids educational series Schoolhouse Rock!, which premiered on ABC in 1973.

He parodied "I'm Just a Bill" as an "Amendment to Be" on a 1996 episode of The Simpsons and reprised his roles as the bill and the conductor on episodes of Family Guy in 2000 and 2001.

Born on Nov. 30, 1931, in Jacksonville, Florida, Sheldon began playing trumpet at age 12. He moved to Los Angeles in 1947, attended L.A. City College and studied with Uan Rasey, then played with military bands in the U.S. Air Force and, after the service, with the likes of Jimmy Giuffre, Dexter Gordon and Chet Baker.

In the late 1950s, Sheldon toured with orchestras led by Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman and backed Rosemarie Clooney, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra and other vocal superstars. He also played with Herb Geller, Art Pepper, Wardell Gray, Dave Pell, Curtis Counce, Woody Herman, Al Porcino, Bill Berry, Maynard Ferguson and Buddy Childers.

An inventive player, he also headed his own 17-piece orchestra.

As as actor in the 1960s, Sheldon portrayed neighbor and jazz musician Fletcher Kincaid on The Cara Williams Show and starred as Buddy Overstreet, a young accountant on the run from gangsters, on another CBS series, Run, Buddy, Run. A spoof of The Fugitive from Get Smart producer Leonard Stern, it lasted just 13 episodes.

He then played the brother of John Davidson's character on the 1973-74 NBC sitcom The Girl With Something Extra, starring Sally Field, and appeared in Freaky Friday (1976) and on episodes of Mike Hammer, Private Eye.

Sheldon also was the voice of Louie the Lightning Bug in a series of musical cartoon PSAs in the 1980s and performed the theme song for the 1990s ABC series Homefront, starring Kyle Chandler.

Sheldon was the subject of a 2008 documentary, Trying to Get Good: The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon, in which he detailed his battle with alcohol and substance abuse. He then made a resounding recovery from strokes suffered in 2005 and 2011 that robbed him of the use of his right hand. (He re-learned to play the trumpet with his left.)

Until last year, Sheldon held monthly jam sessions with some of L.A.'s top jazz musicians for family and friends at his home.

"I like the music to swing," Sheldon told the Los Angeles Times in 1987, "and I like to make people feel it, feel happy and sad, everything. If the music makes me smile and happy, then maybe the people will feel it, too."

In addition to Jimenez, survivors include his children Jessie and John. 

A memorial service will take place at 2 p.m. on Jan. 10 at Forest Lawn in Cypress, California, and a memorial concert at the Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood is set for at 6 p.m. on Jan. 12.