Sweet Nothings Perhaps, but Alan & Marilyn Bergman Write Words the Whole World Sings

updated 11/10/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/10/1980 01:00AM

On the projection room screen, Bo Derek and Anthony Hopkins were romping through an affair. Through the window in the adjoining sound track recording studio, singer Kenny Rankin and composer Henry Mancini, at a console, were keeping an eye on the screen as they dubbed in a tune: "Ordinary people lead ordinary lives/And often have extraordinary dreams/If one of those dreams happens to come true/Then life comes apart at the seams..." Precisely one minute and 40 seconds later, the scene and the song ended in perfect synch. Producer Martin Ransohoff, supervising the postproduction phase of his Change of Seasons, smiled. So did Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who wrote the song's lyrics. "Gee," Marilyn sighed facetiously, "It comes out even."

That the Bergmans' words would complement the film's images was hardly a surprise. In 23 years as a writing team, the Bergmans have won two Academy Awards, eight other Oscar nominations, two Emmys, two Grammys and the respect of melody-writing collaborators from Michel Legrand, Quincy Jones, Marvin Hamlisch and John Williams to Neil Diamond.

Their graceful lyrics have adorned a hit parade of tunes like Nice 'n' Easy, What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?, The Summer Knows and I Believe in Love, as well as their Oscar winners, The Windmills of Your Mind and The Way We Were. Says Ransohoff of the Bergmans' contribution to Change of Seasons: "They've not only written the lyrics but also made an enormous contribution. Their suggestions for the film as a whole saved me from including two scenes that would have been wrong for the movie." (On Change of Seasons, they sketched the lyrics before Mancini wrote his music; normally the Bergmans begin work after the instrumental score is finished.)

Ransohoff is hardly their only Hollywood booster. Last March the twosome was inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame, and in June at an American Civil Liberties Union fund raiser in L.A., Streisand, Joel Grey, Norman Lear, Carmen McRae and 3,200 other guests joined in a tribute to the Bergmans that included many of their 500-plus published songs.

Their art is perhaps not as easy as the Bergmans' daughter, Julie, suggested when she was asked at age 5 what her parents did. "Every morning my mother and father go into a room," she explained. "Sometimes there's music playing and sometimes there isn't. Most of the time they just sit around, and somebody pays them."

But, Alan admits, "making songs is very enjoyable. There's not much pain connected with it." The couple write in solitary, locking themselves into the trophy-filled study of their Beverly Hills home. "When you're creating something, you sometimes have to go through a lot of stupid or silly things to spark your collaboration," points out Alan. "You learn to say what comes into your head." They don't use a tape recorder for fear that it might inhibit them. As to creative abrasion, Marilyn says, "We've had enough experience to know that a compromise is going to be worked out. If one of us feels strongly about something, we'll let it go for the moment, come back to it the next day and look for a third way to do it."

Alan's passion for songwriting began as a child; he wrote his first song, I Wanna Be Miss Subways, at 12, for a high school musical. The son of a salesman, he remembers going to the NBC studios in the late 1930s to watch Benny Goodman rehearse his weekly radio show. After the University of North Carolina and study toward a graduate degree in music at UCLA, he moved into television and directed baseball games and local musical shows during the early 1950s. Later, while he was toiling at a Philadelphia station and writing lyrics on the side, Johnny Mercer, an old acquaintance, passed through town and listened to some samples. The encouraging response sent Bergman back to L.A.

Marilyn Keith, daughter of a clothing manufacturer, literally stumbled into the business. Born in the same Brooklyn hospital as her husband-to-be, she studied at New York's High School of Music and Art for a career as a concert pianist. She soon realized she "wasn't disciplined, committed or talented enough" and that she was "destined to be a terrific audience." Then, while enrolled at New York University and pondering a career as a psychoanalyst, she slipped down a flight of stairs, breaking both shoulders. Immobilized for 10 weeks, she moved to her parents' new home in L.A. to recuperate. There, unable even to turn the pages of a book or hold a pencil, she passed time composing lyrics into a tape recorder. She never went back to school.

By 1957 both Alan and Marilyn were collaborating with L.A. composer Lew Spence—Alan working with him in the morning and Marilyn in the afternoon. Spence introduced his protégés at a swimming party one afternoon "and before you knew it, the three of us had written a song together," says Marilyn. Alan and his newfound partner kept their pairing professional for six months. Then they went East to discuss a Broadway offer from Frank Loesser. "We turned it down, but Marilyn and I spent a lot of time together in New York," relates Alan. "When we came back, we were an item."

Married several months later, the couple scrambled for a while writing nightclub material for which they often went unpaid, childrens' songs and an occasional single. (The popularity of their first, the sappy pseudo-calypso Yellow Bird of 1957, astonished them.) It wasn't until 1968 that they won their first nomination, and an Oscar, for The Windmills of Your Mind from The Thomas Crown Affair.

Though Marilyn is 50 and Alan 55, they still write an occasional Top 40 tune. One, the ballad You Don't Bring Me Flowers, was composed by Diamond. It was turned into a duet with Barbra Streisand, whom they met through a friend, and it hit No. 1 last year. One record industry pal of the Bergmans says, "I think many people—Barbra among them—have turned to Marilyn for everything from recipes to emotional support because of her earth-mother quality." The admiration is mutual, says Marilyn. "At a certain point, most people will settle and say, 'Aw, it's good enough,' " she observes. "That's a sentence Barbra's mouth couldn't form. 'How do you make it better?' is what she's all about."

Away from their lyric sheets, the Bergmans share a taste for books and Impressionist art. In conversation as in their music, they frequently complete each other's sentences. Daughter Julie, now 20, seeks to become a writer, and her parents feel she has benefited from their experiences. "Julie's seen the work and rejections as well as the glamor," points out Marilyn. "And she's seen a real collaboration between a man and a woman."

Outside that partnership, Marilyn has completed two shorts for the Directing Workshop for Women of the American Film Institute and hopes to direct a feature. Alan, a self-confessed ham ("I'll sing anywhere"), aspires to record an album. The two are also grappling with their own original screenplay, and talk of trying another stage musical, despite disappointments with Something More in 1964 and Ballroom in 1978.

In any case, they continue songwriting. They told their celeb followers why in an original tune at this summer's ACLU tribute: As Abercrombie said to Fitch/ And Hammerstein to Rodgers/ As Masters mouthed to Johnson/ And Lasorda to the Dodgers/ Like Barnum is to Bailey/ Like CBS to Paley/ Like peas in a pod/ Like birds of a feather/ We make beautiful music together.

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