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Sunday Spotlight: At 88, Hollywood composer Gerald Fried keeps the songs coming

September 4, 2016

When Gerald Fried tells people he has composed scores for films and television series for some 65 years, they usually ask, “What shows did you work on?”

He can rattle off an impressive list of credits — an Academy Award-nominated score for the 1974 documentary Birds Do It, Bees Do It, five films made by the late cult director Stanley Kubrick, an Emmy Award-winning collaboration with Quincy Jones for the groundbreaking TV miniseries Roots and music for a handful of episodes of the 1960s Star Trek series. People sort of nod their heads but don’t say much in response.

Then, when he mentions that he also composed the music for about 40 episodes of Gilligan’s Island, their eyes light up.

“They just fall on the floor when they hear that,” said Fried, 88, who has lived in Santa Fe since 2000.

Fried is still at it, currently working on Sperm: The Musical, which explores the question, “What do human beings need to do to keep their creative spark alive?”

Fried keeps his own spark lit by constantly creating. He still plays the oboe — his favorite childhood instrument — with the Santa Fe Great Big Jazz Band and the Santa Fe Community Orchestra.

“I love to play the oboe,” he said. “It’s the instrument of passion. It somehow gets into people’s guts.”

And he just composed the score for the sci-fi spoof Unbelievable!!!!!, which includes a marionette character modeled after Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and features a number of actors who worked on various Star Trek-related projects over the decades.

Unbelievable!!!!! will have its premiere Wednesday, Sept. 7 — the eve of the 50th anniversary of the airing of the first Star Trek. Fried and his wife, Anita, plan to attend the event in Hollywood.

Fried was born in the Bronx, N.Y., in February 1928. His dad was a dentist and ardent socialist who wanted his son to give up his musical aspirations and get a regular job. Instead, Fried gravitated to music at an early age and still recalls with excitement his first paying gig: a neighborhood dance at the local temple sometime in 1942 that netted him $3.

“That told me something. I could get out of the house and earn a living doing this,” he said. “I wanted to play piano with Tommy Dorsey or the sax with Glenn Miller.”

He was a working musician by the late 1940s and studied music at The Juilliard School.

Somewhere along the way, he met Kubrick, then a shy, introverted, ordinary high school student. “He wanted to be a regular kid so badly, but he couldn’t,” Fried said. “He was the smartest and most sensitive kid.”

Kubrick asked Fried if he could play with the Barracudas, a neighborhood baseball team on which Fried played. Fried’s wife would later joke that Kubrick was so grateful for the opportunity to play ball that he gave Fried his first break in films a few years later.

The film was the short 1951 documentary, Day of the Fight, which followed middleweight boxer Walter Cartier as he prepared for a bout against Bobby James in New York City.

Kubrick asked Fried to do the music because “I was the only musician he knew,” Fried said with a laugh. He said he self-taught himself how to write a score by watching a lot of movies.

The music immediately alerts viewers that an epic battle is about to erupt. The score rushes the audience into the story as Cartier trains, dines on steak, and confers with his brother and manager before taking on James in the ring.

Fried mixed his classical music training with a military-like percussion to imbue his early film compositions with a sense of tension and dread — a perfect fit for early Kubrick. He composed two other low-budget Kubrick films before tackling the score the 1956 cult noir hit, The Killing, about a quintet of everyday losers who plot an elaborate robbery of a racetrack. Things go wrong, of course, and Fried’s hurried score has “doom” written all over it.

Fried would score one more Kubrick picture — the director’s breakthrough effort in 1957, Paths of Glory — before the two men went separate ways.

“He found out he was more talented than anybody else in town,” Fried said, adding that he and Kubrick remained friendly through the years.

Fried’s work with Kubrick paved the way for a steady career writing music for films that ran the gamut from cheesy horror pictures (The Curse of the Faceless Man) to B Westerns that have since earned a reputation (Terror in a Texas Town).

Good or bad, low-budget or big-budget, Fried realized early on that the only way to keep working was to keep working.

Mention the title of some now-obscure 1950s picture he worked on, and he can come up with an anecdote.

The budget for Terror in a Texas Town only allowed for four musicians, so Fried pitched in by playing oboe. Made near the end of the darkest decade of the Red Scare, when officials feared a Communist was lurking behind every screenplay, the picture was written by an uncredited and blacklisted Dalton Trumbo and featured blacklisted actor Ned Young.

Fried’s socialist upbringing made him fit right in on the set. “They must have checked me out and discovered I was a fellow traveler,” he said of the film production crew. “I’m sure there’s an FBI file on me out there somewhere.”

Bring up Timbutku, a 1959 B movie featuring Victor Mature, and Fried starts imitating the “snake-charming” flute sound that permeates the Arabian Nights-type score.

For Birds Do It, Bees Do It, a documentary about the mating rituals of animals, he lays out his simple approach to creating the score: electronic note clusters for the sequences involving microorganisms and the like, and acoustic music for scenes involving animals.

A film composer’s life is not glamorous, he said. He’s not recognizable like some of the stars in the films he scored. Prior to the advent in the mid-1970s of the kinescope — which allows filmmakers to play back video of scenes they just shot — he got exactly one chance to watch the film or television show he was scoring.

This is how it would work: He, the producer, the director and the music editor would gather in a screening room to watch the film or TV show. The music editor would take notes, something like, “Robert comes in at 2:53 seconds, slams the door, and at 2:54 the dialogue starts.”

Fried would go off and compose the score.

“You see it, you absorb it,” Fried said. “You had to trust your memory.”

Fried scored five episodes of Star Trek, including the famous “Amok Time,” in which best friends Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock are forced to fight each other to the death. Some have called Fried’s rat-a-tat-tat theme for that conflict the best fight music in television history.

Steven Fawcette, director and producer of the movie Unbelievable!!!!!, said he asked Fried to score his film because of the composer’s connection with Star Trek.

Fawcette called Fried “a nimble genius” whose composing and conducting work “evoked the essence and feel of the original Star Trek. I was transported back 50 years ago, when I was a kid watching Star Trek for the first time.”

Fried, who has been married four times and has three adult children, said he looks back at his career with gratitude.

“I got to do what I wanted to do and got paid for it,” he said.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.