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Jerry Goldsmith, 'The Composer's Composer,' Honored With Hollywood Star

Composer Jerry Goldsmith, shown in 2000, wrote the scores for more than 200 films over a 50-year career.
David Keeler
Getty Images
Composer Jerry Goldsmith, shown in 2000, wrote the scores for more than 200 films over a 50-year career.

Composer Jerry Goldsmith was honored Tuesday with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was a force at the movies for more than 50 years, until his death in 2004 at the age of 75. But unlike many of the honorees on the Walk of Fame, Goldsmith isn't much of a household name. The best way to get a Goldsmith introduction is by sampling a few of his more than 200 film scores.

In the 1970s, Goldsmith scored three American classics. He gave the 1970 biopic Patton ghostly trumpets and a contagious march. Then Goldsmith wrote a noir score for four pianos, four harps and solo trumpet for 1974's Chinatown — in only 10 days, after the original composer's work was thrown out. Robert Towne, who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Chinatown, says Goldsmith's score was essential.

"That score made that movie. Really," Towne says. "I think it was a movie waiting for that score." The American Film Institute would likely agree; it ranks Goldsmith's Chinatown score among the 10 best scores of all time.

Two years later, Goldsmith wrote a satanic mass for The Omen. The film's director, Richard Donner, remembers the first musical cue they recorded: a scene with a dog walking along a balcony.

"Jerry was conducting these people, and they started with these wonderful voices going 'Antichristo, anti—' every step the dog took," Donner says. "And I got these shivers down my back. It made that scene, and my buddy, that dog — a Rottweiler which I used to hang around with — it made him the most ferocious, dangerous animal that ever happened."

The Omen won Goldsmith his only Oscar, out of 18 nominations. But he set the bar high for his peers, as Breakfast At Tiffany's composer Henry Mancini said at a dinner for Goldsmith in 1993.

"He has instilled two things in his colleagues in this town," Mancini said. "One thing he does, he keeps us honest. And the second one is he scares the hell out of us."

In the '80s and '90s, one of Goldsmith's go-to directors was Joe Dante, who helmed such offbeat films as The 'Burbs and Gremlins.

"The one thing that we used to say to ourselves on the set when things were going badly, we'd say, 'Don't worry — Jerry will save it,' " Dante says. "And more often than not, he did."

Goldsmith's own favorite scores were for two sports movies: Hoosiers and Rudy. For Hoosiers, he wrote a poignant main theme, as well as game music that used samples of real bouncing basketballs. Director David Anspaugh wasn't sure the combination of electronics and orchestra would work for a film set in the Midwest in the 1950s.

"It made us nervous as hell, quite honestly," Anspaugh says. But when the music was laid against the picture, he was more than reassured.

"I was blown away," he says. "I couldn't believe that I actually had my name on it. Because he made us all look so good."

Goldsmith got his start in the early days of television, scoring episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Twilight Zone, among others. And he grew up in Los Angeles, in the shadow of the movie business. But his widow, Carol Goldsmith, says he was primed for a different career.

"Jerry was being trained, since he was a young boy, to be a concert pianist," she says. "And it wasn't until he was 13, when he went to the movie Spellbound, that he fell in love with film and dramatic scoring."

One of Goldsmith's best-known themes was for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was reused for the subsequent TV series. And while his career ran parallel to that of Star Wars composer John Williams, he never had that kind of popular name recognition. Still, he had a big effect on those who followed him — like Austin Wintory, a Grammy-winning composer for film and video games. Wintory says he decided he wanted to write music for movies when he was 10, after hearing a Goldsmith soundtrack.

"I know that virtually every composer, seemingly, worships him," Wintory says. "I mean, I've often heard Williams is like the composer of the people — Goldsmith is the composer's composer."

Goldsmith did score a number of popular hits: Alien, the Rambo films, Basic Instinct, Poltergeist. But his résumé is also littered with titles like Rent-a-Cop and Mr. Baseball. Carol Goldsmith says he scored every film like it was the next Chinatown.

"He approached each project as the best assignment he might be given," she says, "and gave it his all."

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