Schifrin was born Boris Claudio Schifrin in Buenos Aires. His father, Luis Schifrin, led the second violin section of the orchestra at the Teatro Colón for three decades. At the age of six, Schifrin began a six-year course of study on piano with Enrique Barenboim, the father of the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. At age 16, Schifrin began studying piano with the Russian expatriate Andreas Karalis, former head of the Kiev Conservatory, and harmony with Argentine composer Juan-Carlos Paz. During this time, Schifrin also became interested in jazz.
Although Schifrin studied sociology and law at the University of Buenos Aires, it was music that captured his attention. At age 20, he successfully applied for a scholarship to the Paris Conservatoire. While there, he attended Olivier Messiaen's classes and formally studied with Charles Koechlin, a disciple of Maurice Ravel. At night he played jazz in the Paris clubs. In 1955, Schifrin played piano with Ástor Piazzolla and represented his country at the International Jazz Festival in Paris.
After returning home to Argentina, Schifrin formed a jazz orchestra, a 16-piece band that became part of a popular weekly variety show on Buenos Aires TV. Schifrin also began accepting other film, television and radio assignments. In 1956, Schifrin met Dizzy Gillespie and offered to write an extended work for Gillespie's big band. Schifrin completed the work, Gillespiana, in 1958 (it was recorded in 1960). Later that year Schifrin began working as an arranger for Xavier Cugat's popular dance orchestra.
While in New York in 1960, Schifrin again met Gillespie, who had by this time disbanded his big band for financial reasons. Gillespie invited Schifrin to fill the vacant piano chair in his quintet. Schifrin immediately accepted and moved to New York City. Schifrin wrote a second extended composition for Gillespie, The New Continent, which was recorded in 1962. In 1963, MGM, which had Schifrin under contract, offered the composer his first Hollywood film assignment with the African adventure, Rhino!.Schifrin moved to Hollywood late that year. He also radically re-arranged the theme song for the popular NBC-TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., altering original composer Jerry Goldsmith's theme to a jazzy melody emphasizing flutes and exotic percussion, which wound up winning the Emmy award for Best TV Theme in 1965.
One of Schifrin's most recognizable and enduring compositions is the theme music for the long-running TV series Mission: Impossible. It is a distinctive tune written in the uncommon 5/4 time signature.
In 1970, he composed the Paramount Television (which by then had taken over production of Mission: Impossible) logo jingle "Color I.D." It was an 8-note jingle featuring horns, woodwinds and timpani. This music would have a long run in Paramount's TV production logos through 1987.
Schifrin's "Tar Sequence" from his Cool Hand Luke score (also written in 5/4) was the longtime theme for the Eyewitness News broadcasts on New York station WABC-TV and other ABC affiliates, as well as National Nine News in Australia. CBS Television used part of the theme of his St. Ives soundtrack for its golf broadcasts in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Schifrin's score for Coogan's Bluff in 1968 was the beginning of a long association with Clint Eastwood. Schifrin's strong jazz blues riffs were evident in Dirty Harry and, although similar to Bullitt and Coogan's Bluff, the score for Dirty Harry stood out for the sheer fear it generated when released.
Schifrin's working score for 1973's The Exorcist was rejected by the film's director, William Friedkin. Schifrin had written six minutes of difficult and heavy music for the initial film trailer, but audiences were reportedly frightened by the combination of sights and sounds. Warner Bros. executives told Friedkin to instruct Schifrin to tone it down with softer music, but Friedkin did not relay the message. Schifrin's final score was thrown out into the parking lot. Schifrin reported in an interview that working with Friedkin was the one of the most unpleasant experiences in his life.
In the 1998 film Tango, Schifrin returned to the tango music he had grown familiar with while working as Ástor Piazzolla's pianist in the mid-1950s. He brought traditional tango songs to the film as well as introducing compositions of his own in which tango is fused with jazz elements.
In 1997, the composer founded Aleph Records.
He also wrote the songs for Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow.
Schifrin made a cameo appearance in Red Dragon (2002) as an orchestra conductor.
He is also widely sampled in hip-hop and trip-hop songs, such as Heltah Skeltah's "Prowl" or Portishead's "Sour Times". Both songs sample Schifrin's "Danube Incident", one of many themes he composed for specific episodes of the Mission: Impossible TV series.
In 2010, a fictionalised account of Lalo Schifrin's creation of the Mission Impossible tune was featured in a Lipton TV commercial aired in a number of countries around the world.
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