Obituary: Johnny Mandel, Oscar-winning composer behind theme for M*A*S*H

Johnny Mandel, composer. Born November 23, 1925 in New York City. Died: June 29, 2020 in Ojai, California, aged 94

Suicide is painless – it brings on many changes. What? The sword of time will pierce our skins. It doesn’t hurt when it begins. But as it works its way on in, the pain grows stronger, watch it grin.” Eh? Grin? Is this somehow incredibly profound? Certainly, it is sung earnestly and beautifully by Ken Prymus over Johnny Mandel’s delicate melody, accompanied by only acoustic guitar, on the soundtrack of the original 1970 film of M*A*S*H. On screen a man lies himself down in a coffin and takes the pill that he believes will kill him. It is a scene that can reduce men to tears. Or is it a bit pretentious, a bit silly even, like something written by a spaced-out teenager?

Johnny Mandel was an accomplished jazz musician and arranger who just a few years earlier had collaborated with the great lyricist Johnny Mercer on his first ever song, the theme song for the film The Americanization of Emily. It was recorded by several giants of popular music, including Frank Sinatra. And he had just won an Oscar for The Shadow of Your Smile, the love theme from The Sandpiper which became a standard, recorded by Sinatra, Streisand, Sarah Vaughan, Andy Williams, Tony Bennett and Glenn Frey.

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Altman wanted something in the same musical vein for the scene in which the dentist Walter “Painless” Waldowski enjoys a “last supper” with friends and then resigns himself to death. Altman wanted something that matched the power and intensity of the action and yet retained the delicacy of The Shadow of Your Smile. And then once Altman had Mandel’s music he intended to sit down and write “the stupidest song ever”.

Bob was going to take a shot at the lyrics,” Mandel recalled. “But he came back two days later and said, ‘I’m sorry but there’s just too much stuff in this 45-year-old brain. I can’t write anything nearly as stupid as what we need… All is not lost – I’ve got a 15-year-old kid who’s a total idiot.’” And so Mandel wrote the music and Altman’s teenage son Mike wrote the lyrics.

Altman would later reveal that he got $70,000 for directing the film, while Mandel and Mike pocketed over $1 million each for the song, which was used in both the film and the subsequent television series, albeit as an instrumental. The TV series ran for over ten years, longer than the Korean War, during which it was set.

The final episode in 1983 became the most watched programme in American television history, with an audience of 106 million. An instrumental version of Suicide is Painless reached No 1 in the UK charts in 1980, ten years after the film came out, and The Manic Street Preachers had a Top Ten hit with their version in 1992.

John Alfred Mandel was born in 1925 into a Jewish-American family in New York, where his father had his own garment business. It was hit hard by the Depression, but he seemingly still had plenty money and retired to California. He died when Mandel was only 11.

Mandel decided to become a musician that same day when a cousin turned up and revealed he made a full-time living playing drums in a band. Mandel learned to play trumpet, later switching to trombone, before becoming an arranger and composer.

After his father died, the family returned to New York and lived in a hotel on Central Park for a year before finding more permanent accommodation. Mandel was sent to a boarding school, which he said was anti-Semitic and “like something out of Charles Dickens”. His mother removed him after he was beaten by the headmaster for using too much hot water.

He found a military academy more liberal, played in its marching band and a dance band and got to wake up the school every day with his bugle. After leaving school he found employment as a horn player. He played with Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Buddy Rich and Woody Herman and was recruited by Frank Sinatra as arranger on his album Ring-a-Ding Ding!. He moved into movies when he wrote the jazz score for I Want to Live, the prestigious 1958 film for which Susan Hayward won the Best Actress Oscar.

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Mandel knew Altman before M*A*S*H. “I was brought in before the movie was even shot, which was highly unusual. In most cases, you’re the last one in the line to see the film when scoring it. So Bob and I were sitting around getting rather ripped one night. Bob said to me, ‘You know, I need a song for the film… That Last Supper scene where the guy climbs into the casket.” It turns out that the “black capsule” is just a sleeping pill and an attractive female colleague persuades Painless that life is worth living after all. The scene is a superb mix of tragedy, comedy, wit, irony and surrealism – M*A*S*H in a nutshell.

Altman liked the song so much that he used a version in the opening credits too, with medics rushing to meet military helicopters that are ferrying in wounded soldiers. Mandel thought it so inappropriate that he stormed out of a screening, but the contrast between the music and the action proved so effective that it was reused on the TV series. Mandel went on to compose the music for other films and work as an arranger with the likes of Barbra Streisand. His first marriage ended in divorce. His second wife died last year. He is survived by a daughter.

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