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‘Mission’ theme writer enjoys his legacy

75-year-old Lalo Schifrin is still going strong as a film score composer
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dum-dum. Dum-dum-dum-dum. Dum-dum-dum-dum. Da-da-DA. Da-da-DA.

However you like to hum it, Lalo Schifrin’s original theme to “Mission: Impossible” ranks high in the pantheon of catchiest songs ever crafted. The New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane recently called it “only the most contagious tune ever heard by mortal ears.”

The 75-year-old pianist has composed more than 100 scores, soundtracks and themes in his career, landing him four Grammy awards and six Oscar nominations. Among his most famous: “Bullitt,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Dirty Harry,” and TV shows “Mannix” and “Starsky & Hutch.”

Schifrin started out as a jazz pianist and played for several years with Dizzy Gillespie. He’s done extensive classical work and has conducted various philharmonic orchestras.

From his home in Beverly Hills, he’s remained active. After scoring the first two “Rush Hour” films, he’s composing the third. And on May 23, he’ll release “Letters from Argentina,” a pulsating album of tango-influenced works that he calls “musical memories” of his homeland.

“Mission: Impossible III” works off of Schifrin’s theme, but has been composed by Michael Giacchino — who has previously worked with “M:I3” director J.J. Abrams on “Alias” and “Lost.”

But “Mission: Impossible” still runs in Schifrin’s blood: his Web site begins with a burning fuse tracing his silhouette as the “M:I” theme plays.

AP: Does it surprise you how the theme to “Mission: Impossible” has become so famous?

Schifrin: Yes, I am pleasantly surprised because I didn’t know when I wrote it that it was going to have such an impact. It was a marriage between the success of the television series, plus the success of the music. If the television series hadn’t been successful, maybe nothing would have happened.

AP: Did you write it to match the burning fuse?

Schifrin: There was a graphic design company that was supposed to do the titles, and they didn’t do it in time. So the producer called me and told me, ‘You’re going to have to write something exciting, almost like a logo, something that will be a signature, and it’s going to start with a fuse.’ I don’t know how many seconds he told me. So I did it and there was nothing on the screen. And maybe the fact that I was so free and I had no images to catch, maybe that’s why this thing has become so successful — because I wrote something that came from inside me.

AP: Would you say it’s a piece that’s in your style?

Schifrin: Yes, absolutely. The mixture of classical and jazz; I had a symphony orchestra together with jazz musicians and electronic instruments — which altogether was part of what I had been doing. “Mannix,” “Dirty Harry,” “Bullitt” — they all had that kind of rhythmic and jazz fusion influence.

AP: Are you comfortable always being best known for “Mission: Impossible”?

Schifrin: No, when I see a fuse I stay away from it! (laughs) The funny thing is I’ve been hired to do very violent movies and I’m not a violent man at all.

AP: What do you think of Michael Giacchino’s score?

Schifrin: I think it’s fantastic. I had a meeting with him before I left for Australia [for a tour] and he said the director wanted to use the music very close to the original music that I wrote. So I gave him some advice and he used it. He’s a very clever composer.

AP: Is composing a score very different from making an album?

Schifrin: To write movies is almost like writing opera. Many of the opera composers like Verdi, if they were alive, they’d be the busiest composers in Hollywood.

AP: Do have any particular approach to composing a score?

Schifrin: The composer Bernard Herrmann (“North by Northwest,” “Citizen Kane”) said, “There’s no such thing as film composers. There are composers, period.” And I agree with that.