Outer Limits, Spaghetti Westerns, Elvis, & The Duke: The Musical World of Dominic Frontiere (Mania.com)
By:Randall D. Larson
Date: Thursday, October 19, 2006
At the age of 72, Dominic Frontiere still composes music in his home in Santa Fe, although he is far from Hollywood and far from the thriving career he had in Hollywood during the 1960s as a composer and producer for the cutting-edge science fiction TV show THE OUTER LIMITS. His music weekly graced TV speakers throughout the decade with his scores to shows like THE INVADERS, THE RAT PATROL, THE FLYING NUN, BRANDED, TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH, and THE IMMORTAL. During the 1970s he scored some of Hollywood's biggest hits, like HANG 'EM HIGH, CHISUM, BRANNIGAN, television's mini-series WASHINGTON: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS not to mention cult favorites like CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD. He moved to Santa Fe after scoring COLOR OF NIGHT in 1994 in order to raise his family, where he composes classical music, lectures, and accepts music students.
I had the opportunity to talk with Dominic Frontiere a couple of times over the last two years when I wrote the notes for La-La Land Records premiere soundtrack releases of his scores for John Wayne's BRANNIGAN and, just this month, A NAME FOR EVIL and THE UNKNOWN. Not all of those interviews which ranged far and wide from just discussing those specific assignments made it into the CD notes, so I present the unused portions here. They provide a unique insight into Frontiere's approach to scoring music and a glimpse into the film and television music world of the 1960s and 1970s.
Name For Evil & The Unknown
© La La Land Records
Q: Let's set the clock back to 1960 how did you get involved with film music? You started with some features, '60, '61, then a lot of TV work after that.
Dominic Frontiere: I was under contract at Fox Studios and a producer came into town by the name of Leslie Stevens, and he did a picture called MARRIAGE GO-ROUND with James Mason, Susan Hayward, and I met him at Fox, and he asked me to do the music for the picture, which I did. We took a real liking toward each other, and one day he called me and says, listen, I've got this deal with United Artists and ABC to produce some TV series. Would you come in as a production guy, be my associate producer? The first one was STONEY BURKE and then went to OUTER LIMITS, and it went on from there.
Q: What were some of the conditions under which you worked on those early TV shows??
Dominic Frontiere: I've only done a couple of interviews in my whole life, but I remember one time the interviewer asked me, "if you had a magic wand, who would you use it for?" And I said, "could I have Tuesday on a Friday next week? Because I was doing something like four or five series at the same time, and that was rough. We used to do pilots around April and they would tell you in June what was sold, and one year I was doing something like THE FLYING NUN, and other things that I thought would never have a chance, and goddamn, they were renewed and the pilots I did sold!
Q: When you've done the pilot, and then it goes into a series, how often did they produce original scores for the series as opposed to having library music used?
Dominic Frontiere: In the beginning you were allowed to track them with library music. I suppose I did half the scores to OUTER LIMITS were tracked. I did all of the scores to TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH. I loved TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH; that was a great show. I don't remember too much about the others I did a lot of pilots.
Q: You scored THE RAT PATROL...
Dominic Frontiere: On RAT PATROL, I just went to Europe and recorded two hours of music [at the same time]. I never even recorded [music for specific episodes]. [The music was tracked into individual episodes by the editors].
Q: THE OUTER LIMITS, of course, remains an icon of 1960s science fiction television scoring. What were your impressions of scoring that series, such as the type of music you were asked to write by Leslie Stevens and the other producers?
Dominic Frontiere: They didn't ask me at all, because I was in charge of pre-production, production, and post-production, and Leslie was in charge of actors, directors, and script. So I really didn't have any boss!
Q: What kind of music did you feel was needed and how did you come up with that wonderful series theme for that show?
Dominic Frontiere: It was more cerebral than it was meditative. I remember I used a vacuum cleaner once for part of the sound these were the days before electronics. I thought we had a good crew, and everything seemed to work well. The series was well received. It was in the days where they wouldn't give you the extra $50,000 to do color, so they were in black and white. We had guys like Conrad Hall was the camera man, Billy Fraker was his assistant, the operator. The guys who produced STAR TREK came out of our production Bobby Justman, all those guys.
I was given a very free hand by Joe Stefano, who was one of the producers, and Leslie. Very free. They were busy doing their scripting. I mean, there was a time in those days where, even though the studios were not busy, they would not deem to lower themselves to rent to a television company, so we had to go to these little independent studios on Melrose to shoot, because the studios thought we were way beneath them. We actually then shot the pilot of OUTER LIMITS, though, at MGM. We managed to get in there, but that was it.
Q: Working on OUTER LIMITS did you wrote new scores for each episode or did they track some of them?
Dominic Frontiere: We tracked some stuff in. In those days, maybe one out of five were tracked. I did a lot of that in those days THE FUGITIVE, for example, it was all tracked.
Q: Did you select the OUTER LIMITS episodes to score or were they give to you by the music producer?
Dominic Frontiere: I was co-producer with Leslie and what always happened was the ones that we tracked were the ones that were all messed up and they took so long in cutting the film there was no time to write the score! I never tracked a segment of OUTER LIMITS that I wanted to track, they were just so damn late!
Q: What was your overall music directive on the OUTER LIMITS? What kind of music were you trying to establish as a signature for the show?
Dominic Frontiere: I wanted the Main Title to almost be pompous. I wanted it to have a classical sound, in that there's a big universe out there. Because I was the producer, I got a big orchestra budget!
Q: That's such a timeless motif...
Dominic Frontiere: It was very successful and I'm very proud of it.
Q: As an anthology show, each episode has its own unique score...
Dominic Frontiere: Yeah, that's what made it great, for me. That was what was fun about it.
Q: How large of an orchestra, generally, did you use on OL?
Dominic Frontiere: Oh, it was probably between 30 and 35 guys, which was pretty big for television.
Q: On that show you also had to create music that would fit these very strange OUTER LIMITS-y environments and situations and yet keep the characters human.
Dominic Frontiere: Yeah, that was all very difficult. I tried to keep the characters human even while they were involved in terrible, crazy circumstances that nobody else ever had. Today, you do a rock and roll song and nobody gives a damn! About four years ago, I was asked to judge the Emmy's for Main Titles for television shows, and they got pissed off at me, I decided to give nobody the Emmy! They were all terrible. They never invited me back!
Q: Another popular science fiction series you scored was THE INVADERS...
Dominic Frontiere: Yeah. THE INVADERS was for Quinn Martin, and he was a great boss.
Q: Did he ask for a specific kind of music for that show?
Dominic Frontiere: He never asked. As a matter of fact I always had great bosses! Quinn never once came to a recording session. Aaron Spelling, never once came to a recording. Quinn and Aaron both had offices at Goldwyn Studios and I'd go there to look at next week's show. And I would maybe bump into them in the street between sound stages, where they'd give me a hug and a kiss and I'd go off alone in my projection room. I got a call once from Quinn Martin, when he went to New York with the pilot of TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH. He called me from a street corner and said he had just screened TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH for the agency reps, and he said "Dom, I owe you such an apology! I was so worried about the score. You know, I really expected there to be some kind of a big march and you know something like that." And I said, "You know, Quinn, I actually wrote one, but I finally ended up saying to myself, 'you know, everyone in the audience knows we won the war! So it wasn't like we're going to war, we're coming from war and we're talking about some of these heroes that we had, and many of them died. So I wrote this anthem for that, rather than some go-go march." And he said, "Well, whatever you did, I know the hair on my arms started to rise when I heard the End Title and I knew we had sold the series, and I'm so glad I didn't open my mouth!" That's what he said!
So I never had any trouble. I led a charmed life! I never had an agent, and I thought the phone would keep ringing... Well after I moved to Santa Fe, the phone stopped ringing! You're out of site you're out of mind. But from the way the music business is today, from what I hear from my students, I spend half if my time feeling sorry the phone doesn't ring, and the other half of my time feeling glad it doesn't!
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges of your TV work of the mid '60s?
Dominic Frontiere: I remember one night I was writing the pilot to THE FLYING NUN, and the phone rang, and the secretary said "Mr. Goldman is on the phone for you." I said, "Wait a minute, who's Mr. Goldman?" And she got really pissed off, and she said "he's the Chairman of the Board of the American Broadcasting Company!" I said, "Oh My God! Put him on!" And this guy gets on the phone and starts to give me the biggest lecture you ever heard in your life. He says "do you realize that the responsibility of an 80-million dollar budget is on your shoulders?" I said, "Honest to God, what?!" He said "THE FLYING NUN! You know, if you upset the Catholics, you're going to ruin everything! The whole thing is on your shoulders, and I'm calling you to let you know!" And I'm saying to myself, "If I've got so much responsibility, why are you only paying me $5,000!?" I said "Well, Mr. Goldman, I'm going to treat this thing like a Broadway show." I didn't score the nuns. I used a lot of organ and I wrote a big song called "Who Needs Wings to Fly?" There was a new kind of music that had just hit called bossa nova, and it didn't have an identifiable motion picture application, so I started writing bossa nova for THE FLYING NUN! So between the Broadway Show opener and the bossa nova, it [turned out fine?]. That was the only time I ever got that [kind of pressure from a studio] I mean, I hung up the phone shaking!
Q: Your most popular feature film was HANG 'EM HIGH. What can you tell me about that project?
Hang Em High
© United Artists
Dominic Frontiere: I had eight days to write that! They wanted a Morricone score. There was a guy named Murray George who was the head of the publishing company for United Artists, who released the picture. And Murray called me, and he said "Dom, you're doing HANG 'EM HIGH?" I said, "Yeah, but I've only got eight days!" He said "Listen, I want you to write a Morricone type theme, I want you to do a demo this afternoon. I want you to put it on the pouch and get it here tomorrow morning." So I wrote my theme, I did a quick demo, I got it on the UA pouch, and I'll never forget, the next morning he called me and said "What are you, the Lewis & Clark expedition?" I said, "What the hell are you talking about?" He said "Dom. We told you. I thought you were going to do a Morricone-type score for me?" I said, "Screw Morricone! I do my own goddam score! I'm, not going to deal with all that!" He said, "Ohhh, if what you're telling me is you can not write like Morricone, I understand." I said "what do you mean I can't write like Morricone? I can write better Morricone than he can!" He said, "Good! Do me a demo this afternoon, have it on the pouch tomorrow!" So I wrote that rip off, and you know, it killed me. It never made Number 1, but it was Number 3 in the country for like eighteen weeks! I never forgave myself!
Q: Yet it worked well as a score.
Dominic Frontiere: Yeah! And he was thrilled, and I got something like 84 or 85 cover records. Everybody recorded it. It was hysterical I was embarrassed!
Q: Now what, aside from the Main Theme, what were your memories of your approach to the rest of the score?
Dominic Frontiere: Fear! I had eight days!
Q: How did you just get the physical mechanics of getting it done in that time period?
Dominic Frontiere: Two or three hours sleep a night. You just do it. I must say, having all that television experience, where you write in five days... I didn't have a chance to sit and watch the picture and let the picture talk to me. The Morricone approach was opera an opera Western. Characters were bigger than life. I did another one called BARQUERO, because they liked the score to HANG 'EM HIGH so much! I became the American Morricone. If you wanted Morricone you came to me.
Q: Your music for John Wayne's CHISUM, on the other hand, was far more American in style. How would you describe the music you wrote for that film?
Dominic Frontiere: John Wayne movie was probably the best boss I ever had. When you work for Wayne, you couldn't screw up, but whatever you were in charge of, you were in charge of it, and nobody ever said a word about it. And he loved the score, thank God! Michael [Wayne] was the best man at one of my weddings, so we're good friends.
Q: You also scored Wayne's detective movie, BRANNIGAN...
Dominic Frontiere: I spent three months in London, and they left me alone for ten, eleven weeks to write this score. Michael kept coming back and forth from the United States, so I didn't see too much of him. Fortunately the picture was cut, so my music editor, and I [worked out where music was needed]. But I had at that point the freedom where that I could write whatever I felt was right. And John Wayne was one of the only characters I ever saw on screen that no matter what you wrote for him, his character would come through.
Q: How was it like working for John Wayne? This was his second to last movie, as it turned out.
© La La Land Records
Dominic Frontiere: He was everything you'd think he was. He got about a hundred death threats a week! I went to his funeral, and they had to dig five holes at the cemetery, they were afraid somebody was going to steal the body. The entire police force of Orange County, every motorcycle cop, every police car, showed up for the funeral, and cordoned off the cemetery.
The first time I went to his house, he had this incredible study. It was huge. 155mm Howitzer shells for ash trays, guns on the walls, tiger heads. Holy shit! John Wayne! And I said to him, "gee, JW, this is a great room!" He said "Yeah, I've had it 35 years!" So the next day when I recorded at Warner Bros, Michael and I had lunch, and I said "Michael, how long has JW been down in Orange County?" "Oh, about four or five years." I said, "I thought so. It was the funniest thing, you know, he met me in his study and I said to him 'gee, what a great room!' and I could sworn he said he's had it over 30 years." Michael said, "he has! What he does is, every time he moves, he has the plans for the same room, so he rebuilds his room!"
Q: Did he have any interest or any musical input in your music?
Dominic Frontiere: Never. He used to call me "composer" because he couldn't pronounce my last name!
Q: So what are your musical endeavors these days, since moving to Santa Fe?
Dominic Frontiere: Mostly writing classical music. I've managed to keep myself busy. I just got three scripts from a guy who wants to re-do THE INVADERS, oddly enough, with Roy Thinnes playing an older man part in the thing, and he wants to shoot it here in New Mexico. I've got a script here they want me to look at, ELVIS HAS LEFT THE BUILDING, a comedy with Kim Bassinger. You know, I'm glad that somebody thought enough of me to send it. I did Elvis' first picture, LOVE ME TENDER.
Q: That's right. What can you tell me about that?
Dominic Frontiere: Alfred Newman assigned me to him because I was relatively his age, although he was older than me, and he kept calling me "Sir." For about two weeks we were close, and every night he wanted me to get with him in his car and we would go up and down Hollywood Blvd from 7 to 9, from Western Ave to Highland, up and down. He loved cruising Hollywood Blvd. He was a good guy but on those days we were under contract, and I was under contract to Fox, and he only did the one movie for Fox and then he moved over to MGM so I never saw him again.
Q: What did you do for the film?
Dominic Frontiere: I wasn't the composer, I was the arranger on the picture. In those days I was under contract at Fox as an arranger for Alfred Newman, I was 17. Alfred Newman gave me my first job out there. The Newmans became like my brothers. But everything was controlled in those days. We had music libraries you could rent for a tune. There must have been six or seven full time arrangers who came from Broadway and all over the place. Franz Waxman, Hugo Friedhofer, Alex North, and all these guys, and I could go to them and ask "gee, how do I do this?" You know, I was a kid. And I'd get all this incredible information.
Q: What a wonderful apprenticeship.
Dominic Frontiere: Oh man! I think music for films is a hand-me-down business that unfortunately not as many people are handing down these days. I don't know, I'm starting to feel old! But I still do Diet Coke commercials and stuff like that.
For a filmography/discography of Dominic Frontiere you can go here.
Recommended Soundtrack sources:
For questions or comments, contact the author at Soundtrax@cinescape.com