Johnny Mandel, Oscar-winning composer behind M*A*S*H theme, dies aged 94

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

Johnny Mandel, the Oscar and Grammy-winning composer behind the theme from M*A*S*H and more, has died aged 94.

Details of his death have not been released. The news was announced by musician and friend Michael Feinstein, who said: “A dear friend and extraordinary composer arranger and all-around brilliant talent Johnny Mandel just passed away. The world will never be quite the same without his humour, wit and wry view of life and the human condition. He was truly beyond compare, and nobody could write or arrange the way he did. Lord will we miss him. Let’s celebrate him with his music! He would like that.”

Another tribute was paid by singer Michael Bublé, who called him “a genius and one of my favourite writers, arrangers, and personalities. He was a beast.”

Mandel was born in New York in 1925, the son of an aspiring opera singer mother. He studied music at schools including Juilliard, and learned trumpet and trombone, finding early work with jazz bands and orchestras headed by Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Jimmy Dorsey and more. He also played in a group with Alan Greenspan, who went on to become a long-standing chair of the US Federal Reserve. “Alan was very bookish and a nice guy,” Mandel later remembered. He also did the payroll, so we always got paid on time.

Mandel began composing and arranging, and over the years created orchestral arrangements for Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett and more, but became most celebrated for film scoring. An early success was the 1964 James Garner and Julie Andrews film The Americanisation of Emily, and its theme song, Emily.

The following year’s The Sandpiper, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, won Mandel an Oscar for best original song, for The Shadow of Your Smile. Mandel wrote it after being inspired by a California vista on the film set. “I saw that gorgeous panorama, shooting from Big Sur out on to the ocean. How do you write that? I figured, you write it with a solo voice ... I’d try to translate that into what it looked like.” Originally recorded with a choir, it was covered by Bennett, Streisand, Stevie Wonder, Astrud Gilberto and many more.

Mandel went on to be a versatile composer, since scoring everything from gritty crime dramas such as Point Blank with Lee Marvin and Harper with Paul Newman, to family movies (Freaky Friday, Escape from Witch Mountain), and comedies like Caddyshack. He repeatedly worked with directors Hal Ashby, Sidney Lumet and Robert Altman, for whom he wrote Suicide is Painless with Altman’s teenage son Michael writing lyrics – it became the theme for M*A*S*H and its spinoff TV show, and Mandel’s most famous work.

Mandel also won five Grammys, mostly for his arrangements, with Shadow of Your Smile winning song of the year in 1965. He also composed for TV, and earned Emmy nominations for scores to TV movies A Letter to Three Wives, LBJ: The Early Years and Foxfire.

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