The late composer behind ‘RoboCop’ gets his due at Disney Hall

By the mid-1960s, USC’s campus was becoming a creative hotspot, attracting an overwhelming number of future famous filmmakers. George Lucas, John Milius, Walter Murch, Randal Kleiser, and Caleb Deschanel were all members of what Lucas called “the USC Mafia.” Milius, who later wrote “Apocalypse Now,” called it “the class on which the stars fell.”

Sitting next to them in film class was Basil Poledouris — a gentle, laid-back surfer who wore a leather hippie hat and “was just one of the gang,” says writer-director Matthew Robbins. “We all did student films and he was one of them.”

After graduation, they all moved into different areas of the business – writing, camera, editing, directing. But when Robbins saw Milius’ surf film Big Wednesday 10 years later and realized that the grandiosely romantic orchestral score had been composed by Poledouris, “I was just blown away,” he says. “I had no idea he had that gift.”

Poledouris wrote the film music for more than 50 feature films – including “The Blue Lagoon”, “Conan the Barbarian”, “RoboCop”, “The Hunt for Red October” and “Free Willy”. It honored the grandeur of Hollywood’s golden age, updated for the blockbuster era, and its muscular themes and smooth folk tunes became enduringly associated with several iconic characters.

But Poledouris’ career never really took off like some of his peers – including James Horner, Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer – and although he won an Emmy for the 1989 miniseries “Lonesome Dove,” he was never nominated for an Oscar. He died of lung cancer in 2006 at the age of 61.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of his breakout score for “Conan,” and Friday’s Walt Disney Concert Hall will pay a much-needed tribute to Poledouris’ career. The event is hosted by the Los Angeles Film Orchestra and Chorale, a new formation formed by Steven Allen Fox, a regular conductor of film music concerts. It will be hosted by longtime soundtrack producer Robert Townson and will be staffed by resident choir Maestra Marya Basaraba. Former classmates Milius and Kleiser are sitting in the audience.

When Bobbie Poledouris met her future husband in 1965, she too had no idea he was a budding composer. She was a freshman at USC and on their second date they were at a friend’s house. The friend turned to Bobbie and said, “Don’t you love how Basil plays the piano?”

“I said, ‘I didn’t know he played the piano,'” she recalls. “He said, ‘Oh good, Basil is playing for you!’ [Basil] sat down and said, ‘I composed this piece of music after our first date last week.’”

A man and a woman lean against each other.

Basil Poledouris, left, and Bobbie Poledouris, right, on their wedding day in 1969.

(Photo by Bobbie Poledouris)

The son of a Greek immigrant, Poledouris grew up in Garden Grove, where he graduated from the same high school class as Steve Martin. He was a gifted pianist from the start and played in a folk band called the Southlanders. Poledouris received a full music scholarship to Cal State Long Beach and was studying piano and composition when one of his teachers told him, “I don’t like what you wrote here. That kind of crap could probably make a lot of money in Hollywood.”

So he dropped out of music school and went to film school, where, among other things, he directed an award-winning short film about a boy’s day on a fishing pier.

“My first impression of him was his beard,” says Milius, who went surfing with Poledouris. “We quickly became very close friends.”

Milius says he learned Poledouris was a composer the first day they met. Deschanel, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer on The Natural, also knew at the time that he was a great musician because they had scored student films together.

“To say ‘written’ isn’t really the right thing,” says Deschanel. “We just sat around and played some stuff and, ‘What do you think of this riff?’ and ‘How about I do that and then you play the piano?’”

After “Big Wednesday,” which reflected Poleduri’s lifelong love of the sea, his score for “Conan the Barbarian” reinforced the tale of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s silent warrior with heroic waves and folksy melodies reminiscent of his own hero’s epics, ” Ben Hur” composer Miklós Rózsa.

Poledouris specialized in mythical music – cinematic hymns and ballads that sounded ancient and emotionally naked.

“Basil was really able to capture the emotion in my work and knew exactly what I wanted to convey in my films,” says Milius. “Every time. He was incredibly versatile. He wrote from the heart, right into the heart of every film.”

His other frequent collaborator was Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, and his subject for RoboCop – the 1987 blood-soaked satire – was an instant classic, mirroring the half-man, half-machine protagonist with a stern brassy march over glittering electronics.

He was associated with testosterone-heavy imagery, but Poledouris was an unabashed romantic. He was able to explore these emotional depths in films like The Blue Lagoon, Kleiser’s drama about two children growing up on an island. But macho Milius also had him write stirring, sensitive melodies in films such as Farewell to the King, an old-fashioned epic starring Nick Nolte.

The Hunt for Red October, the first adaptation of Tom Clancy’s novels by Jack Ryan, boasted thriller scores that weaved soulful melodies, bubbly synthesizers and the vocal style of a Russian choir.

His friends described him as a gentle bear, which pretty much describes his work.

A man and a woman are sitting on the beach, covered by a blanket.

Basil Poledouris, pictured with then-girlfriend and future wife Bobbie, right, has been described as “a gentle bear” by friends.

(Photo by Bobbie Poledouris)

By 1990, Poledouris had enough pedigree for his agents to seemingly land him “Dances With Wolves” — a perfect match for his romantic brawn that would surely have propelled his career to new heights. But realizing it conflicted with Milius’ new film, the unforgettable Vietnam flick Flight of the Intruder, he pulled out of Kevin Costner’s multi-Oscar-winning film out of loyalty to his old college friend. “That was Basil,” his agent Charles Ryan said.

The ’90s spawned several family movies, most notably Free Willy. A clever and touching tale about an abandoned boy who befriends a captive orca earned comparisons to “ET” and became one of the biggest hits of 1993.

“The score is in many ways the heart of the film,” says Jason James Richter, the film’s star. His character Jesse communicates with the whale by playing a poledouris tune on his harmonica. The music “is the relationship between Jesse and Willy,” Richter said. “It’s the emotional glue.”

Poledouris lent similar soul to a live-action remake of The Jungle Book, Sam Raimi’s baseball film For Love of the Game, and a 1998 adaptation of Les Misérables starring Liam Neeson — all with indelible melodies and serious emotion.

However, Hollywood tastes changed – Zimmer and others ushered in an acceleration in technology and a decline in lush tunes – and Poledouris found himself a man of the times.

“All the curses of contemporary film music came upon Basil,” agent Richard Kraft wrote in a 2013 blog post. “Even though he was still a young man, I think Basil identified more with him [Bernard] Herrmann’s and Rózsa’s than what became more and more popular.”

Great opportunities dwindled in his final years and he withdrew from the world somewhat. While he was being treated for stage IV cancer, he was able to ride a final wave of admiration by conducting the score of “Conan” in Ubeda, Spain. He died a few months later.

Several composers who have been in Spain – including John Debney (“Elf”) and John Frizzell (“Office Space”) – will conduct selections at Disney Hall, as will Christopher Lennertz (“The Boys”), one of the protégés of Poledouris.

“I miss his music and hearing him play the piano,” said Bobbie Poledouris. “And I miss the music that was never written.”

“Basil Poledouris: The Music & The Movies”

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave, Los Angeles
When: Friday 22 July
Admission: $50-175
The information: The late composer behind ‘RoboCop’ gets his due at Disney Hall

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