Leslie Bricusse, ‘Willy Wonka,’ ‘Goldfinger’ Songwriter, Dies at 90

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Leslie Bricusse, Oscar- and Grammy-winning songwriter whose songs for Broadway and Hollywood include “What Kind of Fool Am I?” and “Pure Imagination,” died Tuesday in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. He was 90.

Bricusse wrote the lyrics for James Bond theme songs “Goldfinger” and “You Only Live Twice,” as well as songs for movies including “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (including “The Candy Man”), “Scrooge,” “Hook,” “Doctor Dolittle” and “Superman.”

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His close friend, Dame Joan Collins, announced the death on Instagram this morning, calling him “one of the giant songwriters of our time.” Bricusse’s son Adam also announced it on Facebook; neither indicated a cause of death.

Over seven decades, the London-born writer-composer was in demand for his clever, witty and tuneful songs, sometimes in collaboration with others (notably Anthony Newley in London, Henry Mancini and John Williams in Los Angeles) and sometimes serving as both lyricist and composer.

“The music illuminates the meaning of the lyric, just as the lyric can have only that melody and no other,” Bricusse wrote in his autobiography. “They are the two reflecting halves of the same thing, and like the fine finished product of any art or craft, the two pieces must be seamlessly joined.” Mancini once called him “the consummate Brit [with] an encyclopedic memory for things theater,” adding, “sometimes I just like to sit back and watch his mind work.”

Bricusse won the 1967 best song Oscar for “Talk to the Animals,” from the Fox musical “Doctor Dolittle,” and the 1982 song-score Oscar for the musical “Victor / Victoria,” written with Mancini. His Grammy was for song of the year in 1963, “What Kind of Fool Am I,” written with Newley for the West End musical “Stop the World – I Want to Get Off.”

The Bricusse-Newley song score for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” was Oscar-nominated in 1971, but curiously not for its best-known tunes: the Gene Wilder-sung “Pure Imagination,” now among the most familiar and beloved songs of its time, and “The Candy Man,” from the same score, a hit for Sammy Davis Jr.

Yet both his song “Thank You Very Much,” and the musical it was written for, “Scrooge,” based on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” starring Albert Finney, were Oscar-nominated and are more popular now than when they debuted in 1970. “Dolittle,” “Scrooge” and “Victor / Victoria” were all later adapted for the legit stage.

Bricusse regularly moved back and forth from stage to screen. In addition to “Stop the World,” which opened in London in 1961 and on Broadway in 1962 (with Newley starring in both), he wrote “The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd,” also with Newley, a U.K. production that enjoyed bigger success on Broadway in 1965. “Who Can I Turn To,” from that show, was a hit for Tony Bennett; “A Wonderful Day Like Today” is now a standard and “Feeling Good” was recorded by numerous artists including Nina Simone.

With Cyril Ornadel, he also wrote “Pickwick” for the West End in 1963; on his own, “Sherlock Holmes: The Musical,” with Ron Moody as Conan Doyle’s famed detective, in 1988; and with Frank Wildhorn, he penned both book and lyrics for “Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical,” which reached Broadway in 1990, and “Cyrano,” which debuted in Japan in 2009. “Sammy,” about the life and times of Sammy Davis Jr., has been workshopped on and off since 2007.

He was a five-time Tony nominee for “Stop the World” (musical, book, score), “Roar of the Greasepaint” (score) and “Jekyll & Hyde” (book). He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1989.

For the big screen, he wrote the Oscar-nominated musical “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” with Peter O’Toole, in 1969; and, with Mancini, the songs for “Santa Claus” in 1985. He and Newley also wrote a “Peter Pan” musical for TV in 1976.

There were 10 Oscar nominations in all, five for best song and five others for best song score. His second Academy Award winner, “Victor / Victoria,” was written for Blake Edwards’ film with Julie Andrews and Robert Preston, and its songs “Crazy World” and “Le Jazz Hot” (both penned with Mancini) were not only favorites, they became key moments in the 1995 Broadway musical version, also starring Andrews and directed by Edwards.

Bricusse loved collaborating with composers who favored melody. With John Barry, he wrote lyrics for the James Bond thrillers “Goldfinger” and “You Only Live Twice.” With Mancini, he added the words for “Two for the Road” and the Oscar-nominated “Life in a Looking Glass” for “That’s Life.” For Jerry Goldsmith, he wrote lyrics for songs from “The Sand Pebbles” and “In Like Flint.” And for John Williams, he penned the words for “Can You Read My Mind” from “Superman,” “Somewhere in My Memory” from “Home Alone” and “When You’re Alone” from “Hook,” the latter two Oscar-nominated as best song.

Born in January 1931 and educated at Cambridge, he was president of its Footlight Revue Club and founded the Musical Comedy Club; there he also co-wrote, directed and performed in his first two musicals, “Out of the Blue” and “Lady at the Wheel,” both of which made their way to the West End in the 1950s. He performed with Beatrice Lillie at the Globe Theatre and wrote his first film, “Charley Moon,” in 1956.

Bricusse, who had homes in Beverly Hills, London and France, is survived, in addition to his son, by his wife Evie. There was no immediate word about a memorial service.

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