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Laurie Johnson, ‘The Avengers’ Composer, Dies at 96

British composer Laurie Johnson, whose theme for “The Avengers” was among the most famous of 1960s spy-show signatures, died in his sleep on Tuesday, Jan. 16, in North London, according to a statement from the family. He was 96.

Johnson was among the last of the prominent English film composers active during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. He scored “Dr. Strangelove” for Stanley Kubrick in 1964, along with such features as “Tiger Bay” (1959), the Werner von Braun biopic “I Aim at the Stars” (1960) and sci-fi and fantasy films “First Men in the Moon” (1964) and “Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter” (1972).

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But it was his music for “The Avengers,” the lighthearted and stylish teaming of troubleshooters John Steed and Emma Peel, winningly played by Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg, that gave him star status. Johnson came aboard for the fourth season of the British-made series, which aired in America starting in 1966.

He remained with the series after Rigg’s departure and the arrival of Linda Thorson as Tara King in the series’ sixth season. Johnson scored virtually every episode, “an unheard-of extravagance,” he once said. “Sometimes there would be as much as 30 minutes of music to be recorded and synchronized every week. Over the whole series I must have composed around 50 hours of music.”

When the same production team launched “The New Avengers” in 1976, with the returning Macnee teaming with Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley for fresh adventures, Johnson reprised the opening bars of the original “Avengers” theme but segued into an entirely new piece for the series. This series aired in a late-night time slot in America in 1978.

Much of Johnson’s best-remembered music, in addition to “The Avengers,” was for British television. His recording of the theme for “Top Secret” made the U.K. record charts in 1961. He also scored the Shirley MacLaine series “Shirley’s World” and the “Department S” spinoff “Jason King” (both in 1971), the anthology “Thriller” (1973) and the popular crime drama “The Professionals” (1977).

And while he continued to write the occasional feature film score, including the Glenda Jackson films “The Maids” (1974) and “Hedda” (1975), it was his final four TV movies, all based on Barbara Cartland romance novels, that were memorable orchestral masterpieces. “A Hazard of Hearts,” “The Lady and the Highwayman,” “A Ghost in Monte Carlo” and “Duel of Hearts,” all starring up-and-coming British actors, aired on CBS and TNT between 1987 and 1991.

Laurie Johnson was born Feb. 7, 1927, in Hampstead, England. He studied at the Royal College of Music and spent four years in the Coldstream Guards. A respected arranger of big-band music, he became active in the British music industry in the 1950s and contributed considerable music to the KPM music library (some of which could be heard, decades later, in the cartoons “Ren and Stimpy” and “SpongeBob SquarePants”).

He wrote several large-scale, non-film works later in his life, including a “Royal Tour Suite” for military band; the tone poem “The Wind in the Willows”; “Symphony (Synthesis)” for jazz band and symphony orchestra; and a concerto for trumpet, tenor saxophone and orchestra.

The family statement read: “Laurie’s music touched the lives of millions around the world. Throughout his illustrious career, he composed numerous iconic scores, themes and soundtracks that graced our lives across film, TV, theatre and radio. In this time of mourning, we draw strength from the beautiful memories we shared with him. We remember Laurie as an extraordinary individual who embraced life with passion and brought joy to so many. His kindness, compassion and infectious sense of fun and laughter will be profoundly missed by all that knew him.”

He is survived by his wife Dot, a daughter, son-in-law and grandson.

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