Thanks for the Melodies

updated 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN CHOOSING A TITLE-FOR HIS 1989 autobiography, Henry Mancini picked the question a movie songwriter might ask about the audience: Did They Mention the Music? In Mancini's case, of course, people always did—often while announcing his latest Academy Award nomination. Mancini earned 18 of those during his 40-year career, winning a Best Song Oscar for "Moon River" from Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), a nomination for "The Pink Panther Theme" (1964) and a Best Score Oscar for 1982's Victor/Victoria. Still busy at 70, Mancini was writing new songs for a stage version of Victor/Victoria in February when he learned that he was suffering from inoperable cancer of the liver and pancreas. Last week, with his wife by his side, he died at his home in Bel Air, Calif.

The son of an Italian immigrant steelworker, Mancini came to music by way of Aliquippa, Pa., where his father taught him flute and piano. After World War II service in the Air Force and the infantry, he joined the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1946 and fell in love with its singer, Ginny O'Connor, who was one of the original members of Mel Tormé's Mel Tones. "They'd all file on the bus and leave the seat empty next to me," she reminisced recently, "and that would be the only place left for him to sit." The couple married in 1947 in Hollywood, where Mancini went to work writing music at Universal Studios. He would become the town's most prolific composer.

Over the next few decades—often in collaboration with lyricists Johnny Mercer and Leslie Bricusse—Mancini churned out theme music for more than a dozen TV shows (Peter Gunn and Remington Steele among them), scored more than 80 films and collected 20 Grammys. "He was the greatest songwriter since Irving Berlin," says Andy Williams, whose "Moon River" recording sold millions of copies and became a signature theme, "and he was the nicest man I ever knew."

Mancini met his end the same way he lived: with unassuming dignity. Two months ago, visibly ailing, he was honored on his 70th birthday at a benefit for UCLA music students. Accompanied by Ginny, now 69, and their three children, he told well-wishers that "regardless of what's happening, things have never been better. What matters most," said Mancini, "are family and friends...I am very much at peace."

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