Oscar-Winning Composer Marvin Hamlisch Dies at 68

Marvin Hamlisch - H 2012
David Livingston/Getty Images

Marvin Hamlisch - H 2012

The man behind the music of "The Way We Were," "The Sting" and "A Chorus Line" died suddenly in Los Angeles.

Marvin Hamlisch, the prolific composer and arranger who won Oscars for his work in The Way We Were and The Sting, collapsed and died Monday in Los Angeles following a short illness, a family spokesman said. He was 68.

One of only three composers to win an Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmy, Hamlisch also received a Pulitzer Prize for the Broadway musical A Chorus Line in 1975. He and Richard Rodgers are the only people to win all five awards.

Barbra Streisand, who knew Hamlisch for a half-century and frequently collaborated with him, said Tuesday: "I’m devastated. He was my dear friend. Just last night, I was trying to reach him, to tell him how much I loved him and that I wanted to use an old song of his that I had just heard for the first time. He was a true musical genius, but above all that, he was a beautiful human being. I will truly miss him.”

Liza Minnelli said Tuesday: "Marvin Hamlisch and I have been best friends since I was 13 years old. He arranged my first album, my second album, the songs for Judy Garland & Liza Minnelli at the London Palladium and just about everything else. He was one of the funniest people I knew. I will miss his talent, our laughter and friendship, but mostly I will miss Marvin."

Born on June 2, 1944, in Brooklyn, Hamlisch at age 7 became the youngest student admitted to the Juilliard School, where he trained as a pianist. After getting his start in film music with the 1968 Burt Lancaster drama The Swimmer -- a job he said he landed after impressing the producer with his piano playing during a cocktail party -- he would spend the early part of his film career focusing on lighthearted comedies such as Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971) and Disney’s The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973).

He became an overnight media sensation in 1974 when he picked up three Oscars in one night -- for best dramatic score and best song for The Way We Were and for adapting Scott Joplin’s music for best picture Oscar winner The Sting. Soon after, Hamlisch became a household name, his colorful personality landing him regular appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

He also cleaned up at the Grammys in 1975, winning four trophies including song of the year for "The Way We Were," which he wrote with Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Hamlisch also won the best new artist award, having had a hit single as a piano player: "The Entertainer," the Joplin-penned and Hamlisch-arranged theme from The Sting, reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also won for the Grammy for best pop instrumental.

"Marvin Hamlisch was a masterful composer whose work transcended Broadway stages and the silver screen," Recording Academy president and CEO Neil Portnow said Tuesday. "His work had a significant influence on our culture and continues to reach across generations."

The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, helped ignite a revival of Joplin's music and ragtime in general. The film's soundtrack album was a smash, reigning at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 for five weeks.

Streisand’s rendition of "The Way We Were" topped the Hot 100 for three weeks, and Hamlisch continued to make an impact both in film and in popular music throughout the ’70s. He wrote the iconic James Bond song “Nobody Does It Better,” from 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. Sung by Carly Simon, the song spent three weeks at No. 2 -- stymied by Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life," the No. 1 single of the 1970s.

"I'm just shocked," said songwriter Carol Bayer Sager, who became romantically involved with Hamlisch after numerous collaborations, including Neil Simon's They're Playing Our Song (which was based on her relationship with Hamlisch) and "Nobody Does it Better." "He had such warmth and good humor. I hope he knew how wonderful a friend he was."

Bayer Sager recalls how Hamlisch came to her aid at a particularly difficult time in her career. "I had been asked to perform at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York. A small club. I was very nervous about it and then, one day Marvin showed up in L.A. when I was beginning rehearsals. He spent three days helping me tighten up the show, and he never asked for anything in return. I pray I thanked him enough."

Dividing his time between Broadway musicals and film work, Hamlisch’s success continued throughout the ’80s and ’90s. He received his final Oscar nomination for the song “I Finally Found Someone” from Streisand’s 1996 romantic comedy The Mirror Has Two Faces. He also won three Emmys working with Streisand: two for the 1994 HBO special Barbra Streisand: The Concert and one for 2000's Barbra Streisand: Timeless. He was musical director for both shows, whose soundtrack albums also were million-sellers.

"He’s been in my life ever since the first day I met him in 1963, when he was my rehearsal pianist for Funny Girl," Streisand said. "He played at my wedding in 1998 and recently for me at a benefit for women’s heart disease. The world will remember Marvin for his brilliant musical accomplishments, but when I think of him now, it was his brilliantly quick mind, his generosity and delicious sense of humor that made him a delight to be around."

His prolific output of film scores also includes original compositions and/or musical adaptations for Allen's Take the Money and Run (1969), Jack Lemmon's Save the Tiger (1973), Ice Castles (1978), Redford's best picture Oscar winner Ordinary People (1980), the Meryl Streep drama Sophie’s Choice (1982), the comedy Three Men and a Baby (1987) and his latest effort, Behind the Candelabra, an upcoming HBO film about the life of Liberace.

On Broadway, in addition to his groundbreaking show A Chorus Line -- for which he won a Tony for best original score -- Hamlisch wrote the music for They’re Playing Our Song, The Goodbye Girl and Sweet Smell of Success. He was scheduled to leave for Nashville this week to see his Broadway-bound musical The Nutty Professor, which opened at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center last month. Hamlisch wrote nearly 20 songs for the piece.

He was also working on a Broadway musical called Gotta Dance.

After turning his attention to conducting -- he was the principal pops conductor for a number of orchestras, including the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Pasadena Symphony and Pops and was due to conduct the New York Philharmonic for its New Year’s Eve concert -- Hamlisch enjoyed something of a comeback with his score for Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film The Informant!

Indeed, his final film score represented much of what made Hamlisch such a success in the film world: warmth, versatility, humor and an unabashed sense of showmanship.

While promoting the film, Hamlisch appeared to relish his old-school persona as a storyteller and performer. “I put the ham in Hamlisch,” he said proudly.

He is survived by Terre, his wife of 25 years.

A funeral service is set for 11 a.m. Aug. 14 at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan. Visitation is set for 2-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Aug. 12 at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in Manhattan.

Watch Hamlisch banter with Bing Crosby and Minnelli before they perform "The Way We Were" -- with some bonus Beatles lyrics -- on a 1976 TV show below.

Erin Carlson and Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.