Life and Career
Merrill was born Henry Robert Merrill Levan in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Following a stint with the Army during World War II, he moved to Hollywood, where he worked as a dialogue director for Columbia Pictures. He began his songwriting career writing tunes for Dorothy Shay. One of his first major hits was a country song co-written by Moon Mullican in 1950 entitled "You Don't Have To Be a Baby To Cry", and the 1950 novelty song "If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake", co-written with Al Hoffman and Clem Watts, and initially recorded by Eileen Barton.
The other eight songs which round out the Top Ten for which he is most well-known include
- "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?" - Patti Page
- "Honeycomb" - Jimmie Rodgers
- "Mambo Italiano" - Rosemary Clooney
- "Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania" - Guy Mitchell
- "Love Makes the World Go 'Round" - Jane Morgan
- "The Kid's Last Fight" - Frankie Laine
- "Tina Marie" - Perry Como
- "Make Yourself Comfortable" - Sarah Vaughan
Guy Mitchell recorded many of Merrill's songs including "Sparrow in the Tree Top", "She Wears Red Feathers", and "My Truly, Truly Fair".
Merrill made his Broadway debut in 1957 with New Girl in Town, a musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie. His greatest theatrical success was the Barbra Streisand vehicle Funny Girl, which introduced the standard "People" and "Don't Rain on My Parade". When the stage show was adapted for the screen, he and songwriting partner Jule Styne were asked to write a title tune, which eventually garnered them both Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Song for "Funny Girl". Producer David Merrick employed Merrill to write additional songs for the musical Hello, Dolly. Merrill contributed two songs, "Motherhood March" and "Elegance", and some additional lyrics to Jerry Herman's "It Takes a Woman". Merrill did not accept billing or credit for his additions to the score.
Merrill's other Broadway credits include Take Me Along (1959), Carnival! (1961), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1966), Henry, Sweet Henry (1967), Sugar (1972) (reworked as Some Like It Hot for a 1992 production in London's West End starring Tommy Steele and a 2002-03 United States national tour starring Tony Curtis as Osgood Fielding, Jr.), and The Red Shoes (1993). He also wrote the book and lyrics for the Angela Lansbury vehicle Prettybelle (1971) and the music and lyrics for the Robert Preston musical The Prince of Grand Street (1978), both of which closed during their Boston tryouts. He was nominated for the Tony Award eight times, but never won. However, in 1964 he did win the New York Drama Critics Award for his work on Carnival! and New Girl in Town.
Merrill's screenwriting credits include Mahogany (1975), W.C. Fields and Me (1976), and the television movies Portrait of a Showgirl (1982) and The Animated Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1998).
Among Merrill's television credits were two holiday specials, Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol and The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood, written specifically for Liza Minnelli.
Merrill became progressively ill in the mid-1990s. On February 17, 1998 he was found dead in his car in Culver City, California. His wife, Suzanne, said he had taken his own life with a pistol after suffering prolonged depression linked to various ailments, none of them life-threatening. "He didn’t want to be in a wheelchair," she said. "He wanted to be the master of his own fate."
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