Obituary: Frank Lewin (1925-2008)

January 20, 2008

Frank Lewin, the primary credited composer of incidental music for the landmark television dramas The Defenders and The Nurses, died of congestive heart failure on January 18.

The musical name typically associated with The Defenders is Leonard Rosenman, a distinguished young composer of film scores (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause), whom producer Herbert Brodkin had hired to write a short fanfare that served as the opening title theme for The Defenders.  But that was the extent of Rosenman’s contribution; for the first season, The Defenders was underscored entirely with library music, which often gave this distinguished show the sound and feel of a cheap B movie.

Once The Defenders was a hit of sorts for CBS, Brodkin wisely opted to expand its music budget.  He hired Lewin, who had been the music supervisor (i.e., the man who selected and positioned the stock music tracks) for Brenner, a half-hour cop show Brodkin had produced in 1959, to create original scores for every episode beginning with the third season.   At the same time Lewin became the credited composer for The Nurses, the medical show that Brodkin was also producing for CBS.

The difference was immediate and palpable.  Lewin proved to be a rich, innovative talent, and one evidently up to the task of crafting music for over sixty hours of television each year between 1963 and 1965.  Undoubtedly some tracks were reused, but nearly every episode has a unique motif that relates to its subject matter.  The Nurses episode “Gismo on the EEG,” for instance, marked one of TV’s earliest uses of electronic music to accompany its story of a tomboyish nurse who builds an important medical device in the hospital basement.  For “The Leopard Killer,” about an African chieftain stranded in the alienating modern world of an American hospital, Lewin wrote a percussion-driven score to suggest the sound of tribal drums.

(Lewin may also have been involved with both series as a composer or music supervisor prior to his initial credit on them in 1963.  There are also no screen credits identifying the stirring orchestral theme to The Nurses or the jazzy, minimalist alternating solo timpani and sax riffs heard throughout Brenner and over its closing credits.  I wonder if Lewin is responsible for those as well.)

Lewin taught music at Yale and Columbia for many years and composed scores for local theater productions and outdoor historical dramas.  He evidently worked as a music editor or supervisor for other New York-based TV dramas in the ’50s, and on a few movies (Splendor in the Grass, The Angel Levine), but his only important film credit as a composer was on Michael Roemer’s The Plot Against Harry – a film made in 1969 but shelved for twenty years.

Lewin’s website has a photo and a more detailed resume and biography. 

UPDATE: TV music expert Jon Burlingame points out that ASCAP credits the main and end titles of The Nurses to Robert W. Stringer, who received screen credit as the show’s music supervisor for the first season only.  The score for “Night Shift,” the pilot episode, was composed by Glenn Osser.  So my speculation that Lewin might have been responsible for The Nurses theme was inaccurate.  I do suspect that the Brenner motif I described was Lewin’s work – either an original composition or a very skillful arrangement of existing cues – although I should add that what I called a “sax riff” may be a different woodwind which my very untrained ears can’t identify.

UPDATE, 2/6/08: Members of Mr. Lewin’s family have contacted me with a couple of corrections, and the text has been adjusted to reflect those.  The Lewins also report that Frank did compose the Nurses main title theme – that he called it “his Tchaikovsky” because of its “sweeping, romantic character.”  Assuming that’s true, it’s interesting to speculate why Lewin never received credit for his work (as Leonard Rosenman did for his Defenders theme).


2 Responses to “Obituary: Frank Lewin (1925-2008)”

  1. […] fifty years ago.  I’ve written about a few figures connected tangentially to Brenner – Frank Lewin, the composer who supervised the music and probably composed the terrific, minimalist jazz theme, […]

  2. […] 16: Ronald Noll, music supervisor for CBS shows in New York in the fifties & sixties. Jan 18: Frank Lewin, primary composer for The Defenders and The Nurses. Feb 15: Harry Geller, composer/conductor (The […]

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