We talk with the composer about his decades-long career

From guest-conducting the Israeli Philharmonic to attending the Los Angeles premiere of Mission: Impossible, Lalo Schifrin can’t escape his most famous composition. ”We did it as an encore,” says Schifrin of his recent engagement in Tel Aviv, ”so the last thing I heard in Israel was my own performance of ‘Mission: Impossible,’ and now I come here and the first thing I hear is the movie.” He’d better get used to it — the bank-breaking wide-screen update of the 1960s TV series shows that his tappable 5/4 beat has all the stamina of Tom Cruise’s scrappy superspy.

It makes perfect sense to the Argentinean-born musician that the Mission theme works as well in 1996 as it did in 1966: ”I didn’t have any straitjacket of having to write for a special visual,” says Schifrin, who was given the image of a one-second burning fuse, then told to rush the composition to meet Mission‘s pilot deadline for CBS. More to the point, according to Batman composer Danny Elfman, who rescored the theme for the film, ”A great bass line is a great bass line in any era. You can always do something fresh with it.”

There was a time, though, when Schifrin’s musical career grew a bit stale. After Mission, he went on to compose the scores for Bullitt, Dirty Harry, and George Lucas’ THX 1138, a string of thrillers he now views as career hampering. ”They typecast me,” says Schifrin, 61, who shortened Claudio to Lalo upon moving to the U.S. in 1958. ”They didn’t trust me with a love story. I was too weird.” Schifrin, who with his wife, Donna, lives in the Beverly Hills mansion once owned by Groucho Marx, turned his focus to conducting and performing instead. His latest collaboration with the London Philharmonic, entitled Firebird — the third installment of his ”Jazz Meets the Symphony” album series — is released this week on Four Winds Records.

For now, though, Schifrin is content to sit back and enjoy Elfman’s take on his TV classic, along with the techno incarnation recorded by Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen of U2, who morphed the 5/4 theme into dance-friendly 4/4 time. ”I told yesterday the producer of the record, ‘Why didn’t I think about that?”’ Schifrin admits in his charmingly broken English. ”I always say that things are in 2/4 or 4/4 because people dance with two legs.” But Schifrin’s original has an even broader appeal: ”I did it for people from outer space who have five legs.”

Mission: Impossible
  • Movie
  • 110 minutes