Had a heart attack not killed him back in 1994, the talented, eccentric, hard-living musical genius Harry Nilsson would have turned 75 years old today. In addition to his successes as a singer and songwriter in the 1960s and 1970s, Nilsson did plenty of extracurricular work in television and films, too. He penned songs for The Monkees early on his career, for instance. Here’s Davy Jones and the boys, dressed up as vaudevillians, crooning Nilsson’s old-timey-sounding “Cuddly Toy” in a 1967 episode called “Everywhere A Sheik, Sheik.”
It’s likely that many Americans who didn’t even follow pop music became familiar with Nilsson through “Best Friend,” his theme song for a 1969-72 Bill Bixby sitcom called The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father. It had started life as a Nilsson track called “Girlfriend.”
But one of Nilsson’s strangest Hollywood assignments came a year earlier, when Otto Preminger hired him to compose some songs for his ill-fated, star-studded, fantastically misguided counterculture comedy Skidoo in 1968. Nilsson had a cameo as a prison guard in that one, but perhaps his weirdest contribution to the film was literally singing the credits, one name at a time. Even in a movie with Jackie Gleason getting high on LSD and Groucho Marx as God, this stood out as something weird.
The Beatles were early and vocal supporters of Nilsson’s career. They even tried to sign him to their Apple label in the late 1960s. That never panned out, but Nilsson worked on numerous projects with the ex-Beatles in the 1970s. He and John Lennon collaborated on the Pussy Cats LP during the latter’s druggy, boozy “lost weekend” phase in 1974. That very same year, Nilsson and Ringo Starr appeared together in an Apple Films production called Son Of Dracula. Nilsson played the title character, while Starr portrayed Merlin because this version of the Dracula mythos required a wizard. The entire bizarre film is available on YouTube:
And that wasn’t the end of Nilsson’s adventures in the movies. By 1980, Nilsson had a bad reputation for being an unreliable drunk. Still, Robin Williams managed to convince director Robert Altman to hire Nilsson to write the songs for Popeye. The song score Nilsson devised, including “He Needs Me” and “I Yam What I Yam,” remains controversial to this day, even among Nilsson fans. For years, regardless of their opinions of the work, fans have been circulating the demos he recorded for the Popeye project. For some reason, Nilsson felt compelled to record his own version of “I’m Popeye The Sailor Man,” written by Sammy Lerner back in 1933. As the recording reveals, Nilsson gets way, way out to sea on this one. Ultimately abandoning the familiar melody, he sings the credits here, too, and dishes a little about Altman’s career fortunes for good measure. Have a listen.