Remembering the “Whistler”
Outside the entertainment industry, few knew his name, let alone the face. But generations of television viewers knew “the whistle” and his folksy theme song for The Andy Griffith Show.
The man who wrote—and whistled—the “Griffith” theme, composer Earle Hagen, died Monday at his California home. He was 88.
If the iconic whistle secured Mr. Hagen’s place in the pop culture pantheon, it also obscured his considerable talent as a composer, orchestrator and musician. By all accounts, Hagen was one of the most prolific composers in television history, writing and conducting music for at least 3,000 hours of television programs, ranging from sitcoms to action shows.
“The music just flowed from him,” Hagen’s wife told the Associated Press. It was a talent that served him well during the mid-1960s, when Hagen provided the music for TV shows created by Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard, one of the busiest production companies in Hollywood.
He worked on as many as five different shows at the same time, creating constant deadlines and unrelenting pressure. But he thrived in the pressure-cooker environment, and enjoyed the immediacy offered by television. As he told an interviewer in 2000:
"It was hard work, with long hours and endless deadlines, but being able to write something one day and hear it a few days later appealed to me," he said. "Besides, I was addicted to the ultimate narcosis in music, which is the rush you get when you give a downbeat and wonderful players breathe life into the notes you have put on paper."
Born in Chicago, Hagen’s family eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where he became something of a musical prodigy. Mr. Hagen graduated early from high school and was touring with swing bands at the age of 16.
He later played with some of the best-known band leaders of the late 1930s and early 1940s, including Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. During a stint with Ray Noble’s orchestra, Hagen and Dick Rogers wrote “Harlem Nocturne,” which became a jazz standard and later served as the theme for the 1980s incarnation of the Mike Hammer detective series.
After military service during World War II, Hagen returned to Hollywood, working as an arranger and orchestrator at 20th Century Fox. In 1960, he received an Academy Award nomination (with Lionel Newman) for music scoring on one of Marilyn Monroe’s last pictures, “Let’s Make Love.”
By that time, Hagen was also working for Sheldon Leonard, and was assigned to write a theme for “The Andy Griffith Show,” which would become one of television's most enduring comedies.
With his usual efficiency, Mr. Hagen quickly composed a catchy, whistled melody that became synonymous with the opening shot of Griffith and his TV son, Ron Howard, walking to their favorite fishing spot. While Hagen received music credit for the series—which spanned eight seasons and 260 episodes--many viewers were unaware that he was also the “whistler” for one of TV's most memorable theme songs.
Hagen’s other television credits included such hit shows as Make Room for Daddy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl and I Spy, along with numerous pilots and television movies. He won an Emmy for his work on I Spy, which incorporated ethnic music to match the series' exotic locales.
In one sense, Mr. Hagen wrote the book on creating music for television and the movies. In 1971, he published Scoring for Film, one of the first textbooks on the subject. Four decades later, it remains on required reading lists for aspiring composers. He also held workshops and classes for aspiring writers. For many of those sessions, his teaching fee was a box of golf balls, a nod toward his long-time hobby.
By the standards of “serious” musicians, much of Mr. Hagen’s work would be considered populist, even low-brow. But there was little doubt about his talent, or the contributions he made to countless TV shows and films.
I discovered that first-hand, when I bought a couple of Griffith DVDs at a big box retailer a couple of years ago. The DVDs featured re-mastered episodes of the show, but for some reason, they did not include Hagen’s theme song or his background music.
I sat through part of one episode and turned it off. Without Mr. Hagen’s contribution, the series lost part of its grace and charm. Minus that trademark whistle, Andy and Opie’s stroll to the fishing hole just wasn’t the same.