By Barbara Wilkins
April 01, 1974 12:00 PM

Marvin Hamlisch was a prodigy from Manhattan who claims to have been composing music before he was 6 and who, at 7, became the youngest student ever at the prestigious Juilliard School. Thus, when a mere piano job was offered him 17 years later by a friend, Hamlisch pridefully rejected it. “I pointed out,” Marvin recalls, “that I never played parties. My friend said, ‘It’s for Sam Spiegel, the movie producer,’ and I told him I’d be right over.” Appropriately clad in tuxedo and tinkling away, Hamlisch was finally introduced to his host. Spiegel said he was looking for a composer for his new Burt Lancaster movie The Swimmer. Hamlisch went to Spiegel’s office three days later and announced: “I will now play the theme from The Swimmer.” Spiegel was so impressed he hired Marvin and the hastily improvised theme even stayed in the picture.

Hamlisch has now, by the age of 29, written scores for a dozen other movies. At next week’s Oscars, his name will be in competition in three categories: best original song, The Way We Were; best original dramatic score for that same movie; and best scoring for his adaptation of Scott Joplin’s ragtime background for The Sting. Hamlisch is the favorite for at least the first Oscar, but even without the capricious kiss of the Academy electorate, he can take solace in having won the foreign press Golden Globe Award for The Way We Were and a golden record for the million copies sold of Barbra Streisand’s rendition of it.

Marvin had lesser hits as early as age 17, like Lesley Gore’s recording of “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows.” At 18, Hamlisch began writing special material for his friend Liza Minnelli. “Liza and I would make demonstration records and take them around,” he recalls. When she landed in an off-Broadway revival, she introduced him to the musical director who soon moved on to Streisand’s Funny Girl and took Hamlisch along as assistant vocal arranger.

Today, though he is as hot as a Mancini among movie score writers, he still does arrangements for “very special people,” which means Liza, Ann-Margret and Joel Grey. Last year when he traveled as accompanist and straight man for Groucho Marx’s concert tour, the performing bug bit Hamlisch and he is now working up an act for himself.

A bachelor who neither drinks nor smokes, Hamlisch grew up as an indoor kid from Manhattan. But lately he shows signs of going California: he is taking delight in friends’ backyards and house hunting himself. But he still calls his Jewish mother in New York for permission to eat the pork chops his hostess is serving at a dinner party when he’s ravenous, which he usually is. “My whole life revolves around dessert,” he says. “I think maybe the best one I’ve ever had is cream puffs with ice cream inside, covered with hot fudge. That, and a million record seller, and I’ve reached the promised land.”