Earle H. Hagen, a onetime big-band trombonist who wrote some of the most famous theme songs in television history, died Monday in Rancho Mirage, Calif., near Palm Springs. He was 88 and lived in Rancho Mirage.
He died of natural causes, said his wife, Laura.
Mr. Hagen, a prolific inventor of memorably melodic riffs in a variety of musical idioms, scored dozens of television shows from 1953 to 1986, including “Make Room for Daddy,” “The Mod Squad,” “Eight Is Enough” and “The Dukes of Hazzard,” and he may be the most idly hummed composer of all time, at least among the baby-boom generation of television viewers who grew up in the 1960s.
He wrote the folksy, countrified whistle that opened “The Andy Griffith Show,” accompanying Sheriff Andy Taylor (Mr. Griffith) and his young son, Opie (Ron Howard), down a dirt road toward a fishing hole; he did the whistling himself. He wrote the swinglike anthem for “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” accompanying Mr. Van Dyke’s entry into his suburban home and his tumble over an ottoman. (In later seasons, Mr. Van Dyke would sidestep the ottoman to the same playful musical phrase.) He wrote the cool, cosmopolitan and suggestively exotic theme for the espionage drama “I Spy.” He wrote the cheerily mock-military anthem for the bumpkin-in-the-marines comedy “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C,” starring Jim Nabors. And he wrote the perky pop theme for the Marlo Thomas vehicle “That Girl.”
“He was one of the pioneers of original music for television,” said Jon Burlingame, who teaches the history of film music at the University of Southern California and wrote “TV’s Biggest Hits: The Story of Television Themes From ‘Dragnet’ to ‘Friends’ ” (Schirmer, 1996). “He was a gifted melodist who could see a show, imagine what it needed dramatically or comedically and translate it into music that within one or two hearings became familiar.”
Earle Harry Hagen — he made up his own middle name as a tribute to his favorite uncle — was born in Chicago on July 9, 1919, and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was a boy. His father, Nicholas, was a plumber. He went to Hollywood High School, where he played baritone and trombone, and left home at 16 to travel with big bands, eventually appearing with Ray Noble, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey.
In 1939, while on the road with the Noble band, he wrote “Harlem Nocturne,” an hommage (originally with lyrics by Dick Rogers but most often played as an instrumental) to Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges, which would become a jazz standard, and more than 40 years later he used it as the theme song for “Mike Hammer,” a detective series starring Stacy Keach.
Mr. Hagen, who taught trombone to make extra money, gave up playing for writing and arranging, he said, after his first wife, Elouise Sidwell, whom he met when she joined the Noble band as a singer, complimented his playing and he realized she had been listening not to him but to one of his students.
During the 1940s and early 1950s he was an arranger and orchestrator for 20th Century Fox, working on mostly musical films, including “Call Me Madam” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” In 1952 he left Fox and with a partner, Herbert Spencer, began writing for television, the following year scoring “Make Room for Daddy,” which starred Danny Thomas and began Mr. Hagen’s long association with the producer Sheldon Leonard.
The partnership with Mr. Spencer ended in 1960, just as the Griffith show was beginning, and Mr. Spencer’s name is still listed by BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) as having worked on the theme.
After that, Mr. Hagen alone was the composer of choice for Mr. Thomas and Mr. Leonard, who hired him for the Van Dyke show, “I Spy” and “That Girl,” among others. Mr. Hagen thus entered the most productive and busiest period of his life. At any given time, he might be working on five or six different shows simultaneously. In 1968 he won an Emmy for his work on “I Spy.”
“He was one of the first guys to be tunelike in his scoring,” said Mike Post, who has written themes and scores for “NYPD Blue,” “L.A. Law” and “Law & Order.” “And now, anytime you see somebody walk down a country road with a fishing pole, you hear him whistling.”
An avid golfer, in subsequent decades Mr. Hagen became known for writing (his books on film scoring are frequently on academic required reading lists) and for informal teaching. His only fee for informal summer classes for younger writers was a box of golf balls, Mr. Post said.
Mr. Hagen’s marriage to Ms. Sidwell, who died in 2002, lasted 59 years. In addition to his second wife, who is also a singer and whom he married in 2005, he is survived by two sons, Deane and James, both of Palm Desert, Calif.; two stepdaughters, Rebecca and Rachael Roberts of Irvine, Calif.; a stepson, Richard Roberts of Los Angeles; and four grandchildren.
“I’m 33 years younger,” Mrs. Hagen said in a telephone interview Tuesday, adding that as a teenager she watched all of her future husband’s most famous shows. “It was a part of my growing up.”