But what Hamlisch perhaps played best was the human heartstrings, plucking at our emotions one by one, ranging across the octaves of sadness and joy, letting the feelings resonate for as long as he dared.
Three Oscars, a Tony, four Emmys, four Grammys — they seem now the briefest of nods, insufficient for a lifetime's work of filling our films, Broadway musicals and TV shows with his artistry.
A composer who began his studies in earnest at the age of 7 at New York's famed Juilliard School of Music, Hamlisch was, at heart, a piano man.
Some critics would chalk up Hamlisch's appeal to a kitsch factor. Others would argue he understood better than most how to ride the cultural zeitgeist. Regardless, his songs were consistently commercial, many of the movie themes spiraling into major hits. "Nobody Does It Better," sung by Carly Simon, with Carole Bayer Sager's lyrics, stayed at the top of the Billboard charts for weeks. Filled with mournful regret, it anchored the popular 1977 James Bond thriller "The Spy Who Loved Me," and captured the ambivalence of a country not yet ready to let go of Cold War-styled heroes but still divided and angry about Vietnam.
Hamlisch stacked up so many credits across so many genres it is hard to believe he ever stopped to breathe. You might think someone so driven, so prolific, would grow hard and cold from all the nights of trench warfare of any creative venture.
Instead, he thrived. By all counts he was a gentleman to the end. A quick smile, a kind spirit, a spine of steel. A man who never over-promised and always over-delivered. And yet he moved so effortlessly, so inventively, across film, theater and TV, he rarely made waves, at least not of the destructive sort, and as a result Hamlisch left as many friends and admirers as songs and scores in his wake.