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Billy Goldenberg, TV, movie and stage composer, dies at 84
Billy Goldenberg wrote theme music for popular series like the detective drama “Kojak,” with Telly Savalas.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Billy Goldenberg, an Emmy-winning composer who worked with Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley, scored Steven Spielberg’s early work and wrote the theme music for more than a dozen television series, has died at his home in Manhattan. He was 84.

Gary Gerani, a friend who is making a documentary about Goldenberg, said the cause was most likely heart failure. He said fire department personnel found Goldenberg’s body on the morning of Aug. 4 after he had failed to answer his door for a delivery. He had died overnight.

Goldenberg’s TV career was blossoming in the late 1960s when he met Spielberg at Universal Studios and began composing the music for a number of the young director’s television efforts, including the horror anthology series “Night Gallery,” the whodunit drama “Columbo” and the 1971 TV movie “Duel,” in which a motorist is terrorized by the driver of a big rig.

Spielberg then gave him the script for “The Sugarland Express,” the director’s first feature film.

“I didn’t even look at the script because I was busy writing television,” Goldenberg said in the trailer to “Romantic Mysticism: The Music of Billy Goldenberg,” Gerani’s documentary. “How stupid can a person get?”

John Williams ended up writing the score for “Sugarland” (and many other Spielberg films).

Goldenberg may have lost an opportunity, but he was on his way to becoming one of the busiest composers in Hollywood, writing theme music for popular series like “Rhoda,” the Valerie Harper spinoff of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and the detective drama “Kojak,” with Telly Savalas.

In 1972, he wrote the scores for Woody Allen’s “Play It Again, Sam” and “Up the Sandbox,” starring Streisand as a bored housewife with bizarre fantasies.

Howard Thompson of The New York Times praised Goldenberg’s “striking, luscious score” for “Sandbox” and called it “the real pulse of the movie.”

Goldenberg said Streisand had called him often after filming to “hum me the music for tomorrow,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1976. She once asked him if he could turn a sequence from the score into a song she could record.

Working through the night, he wrote the music for “If I Close My Eyes.” Streisand then asked Oscar-winning songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman to write the lyrics, as they had for her big hit “The Way We Were.”

“Billy was a wonderful composer who didn’t get the recognition he deserved,” Bergman said in a phone interview. “He was a composer who knew dramatics, which is very rare. He knew how to build characters with music.”

Goldenberg collaborated with the Bergmans again in 1975, winning an Emmy Award for “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom,” a TV movie about a widow (Maureen Stapleton) and a postal worker (Charles Durning) who discover love at a dance hall. Three years later, they adapted it for a Broadway musical, “Ballroom,” starring Dorothy Loudon and Vincent Gardenia.

Goldenberg later reflected on the year it took to create the musical. “Sure, in some ways the year was a nightmare,” he told The Daily News in New York in 1979. “But I did a show — on Broadway!”

Goldenberg earned three other Emmys: for the miniseries “The Lives of Benjamin Franklin” and “King,” about Martin Luther King Jr.; and for the television movie “Rage of Angels,” a 1986 legal drama starring Jaclyn Smith.

William Leon Goldenberg was born into music Feb. 10, 1936, in Brooklyn. His mother, Isabella, taught viola and violin and played in chamber and symphonic groups. His father, Morris, was a staff percussionist at WOR and the NBC Symphony Orchestra and taught at Juilliard.

Billy was playing piano by 5 and grew up seeing Broadway shows. He wanted a musical career but was dissuaded when his father was laid off from an orchestra in the early 1950s. Rather than attend Juilliard, he studied mathematics and physics at Columbia College.

After graduating, he went to work as a computer programmer for an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. But by his account he missed music so much that he developed an ulcer and quit the job. Returning to New York, he found work as a rehearsal pianist and arranger.

In 1960 he was hired to played background music for the comedy sketches of Mike Nichols and Elaine May in their Broadway show, “An Evening With Nichols and May.” He also became fodder for them during their improvisational routines, when Nichols and May would ask the audience to supply them with a first line, a last line and a style of music.

“When the music fits Mike and Elaine’s purpose, fine,” The Fort Myers News-Press reported. ”When it doesn’t, they chastise Goldenberg from the stage with lines like, ‘Your brother is practicing the piano. I suppose he’s doing his best.’”

He continued to work on Broadway before being hired as the musical director of the 1968 televised concert “Elvis: The Comeback Special.” He told The Boston Globe that he had tried to delve into Presley’s “subconscious character” and help bring his sound into the 1960s.

Steve Binder, who directed the special, told the Elvis Australia fan club in 2005 that Goldenberg had “truly changed” Presley’s musical direction.

“After that he loved big bands and full orchestras,” he said.

Goldenberg soon after wrote the score for “Change of Habit” (1969), a theatrical film starring Presley and Mary Tyler Moore.

Goldenberg, who had no survivors, remained immersed in composing for television through the 1990s and returned to Broadway in 2002 as the accompanist in “Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends,” which he created with Arthur.

In his review in the Times, Ben Brantley wrote, “You can sense a current of well-worn comfort running between Arthur and Goldenberg, her charmingly crotchety but deferential pianist.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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