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Remembering Earle Hagen

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You may not know his name — he titled his autobiography Memoirs of a Famous Composer Nobody Ever Heard Of — but you know Earle Hagen’s music. Hagen, who died Monday at age 88, was one of TV’s most prolific composers, the man behind such iconic and unforgettable melodies as the Andy Griffith Show and Dick Van Dyke Show themes. (That’s Hagen himself you hear whistling the Andy Griffith tune.) From the ’50s through the ’80s, he composed some 3,000 episodes’ worth of TV music, including such memorable theme songs as the ones for I Spy, The Mod Squad, and That Girl. Back in his big band days, playing trombone for the likes of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, he composed the jazz standard “Harlem Nocturne,” which he updated in the 1980s as the theme for Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. “People used to watch Mike Hammer just to listen to the music,” quipped Hammer star Stacy Keach at a ceremony last month, inducting Hagen into the TV Academy’s Hall of Fame for his 50 years of television work. In addition to his 2000 memoir, Hagen also wrote two textbooks still in use by film and TV scoring students.

Which is good to know, since TV theme song composition seems to be a lost art. Today, TV networks are so afraid you’ll change the channel if there’s more than 10 seconds without dramatic action taking place that they’ve all but done away with traditional theme songs. (Or else they’ve replaced original theme songs with ready-made, familiar pop tunes.) It’s nearly inconceivable now that a network show would get a whole minute of introductory music to establish mood, character, and backstory, the way Hagen and his contemporaries did as recently as 20 years ago. So take a moment to remember Hagen by listening to some of his best loved tunes. Televisiontunes.com has The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Spy, Mod Squad, That Girl, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, among others. Or you can whistle along to the Andy Griffith fanvid below.

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