‘SNL’ Pays Tribute to Hal Willner, Its Sketch Music Producer

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A tribute to Hal Willner ran during the April 11, 2020 episode of Saturday Night Live

In recent days, the music producer and behind-the-scenes Saturday Night Live veteran Hal Willner had taken the time to send love to John Prine who was suffering from the Covid-19 virus, before succumbing to its effects. On April 7, Willner himself died in New York City from complications related to the coronavirus, one day after turning 64.

Willner was one of dozens of behind-the-scenes staff on the late night sketch comedy series, whose names zipped by each week on the end credits, at times not even making it if the show ran long. He was associated with the program since 1981, credited as the sketch music producer. “I was the youngest person here back then and eventually overnight I became the oldest,” he once joked.

On SNL‘s impromptu return with its April 11 “At Home” return, the program offered a lengthy tribute to their longtime colleague.

“The music becomes such an integral part of the sketch that you don’t notice it, but without it, it would make no sense,” said Kate MacKinnon.

“It’s such an amazing gig,” is how Willner described his job. “I get off on the danger.”

Besides his work with SNL, Willner produced albums for an eclectic list of recording artists that included Faithfull (1987’s Strange Weather), Laurie Anderson, Lucinda Williams (2007’s West), Lou Reed (2007’s Hudson River Wind Meditations), and Bill Frisell (Unspeakable).

On March 28, Willner showed humor in a tweet about his own health.

One day later, he sent love to John Prine in what proved to be his final tweet.

Watch a behind-the-scenes segment of what it takes to produce SNL’s music sketches

As the news of Willner’s passing broke, several of his contemporaries paid tribute. Actress and SNL alum Julia Louis-Dreyfus wrote, “Absolutely devastated to get this news about my weird and lovely pal, Hal.”

Actor Michael McKean: “Hal Willner was one of a kind.”

Another SNL alumnus and current talk show host, Seth Meyers, wrote: “As unique a person I ever had the fortune to cross paths with.”

Willner produced a series of eclectic tribute albums including 1988’s Stay Awake, which featured interpretations of music from classic Disney films from such artists as Ringo Starr, Michael Stipe, Sinead O’Connor, Tom Waits, and Los Lobos. His tribute albums to jazz legends Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus included contributions from Peter Frampton, Keith Richards and Elvis Costello.

Hal Willner’s name was one of dozens that zipped by during the SNL end credits

1985’s Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill included recordings by Sting, Faithfull, Reed, and others.

Willner had recently been working on a tribute album for glam rock band T. Rex, that is to accompany a film about them called Children of the Revolution, borrowed from the title of one of their songs. Willner had lined up contributions from such stars as U2 and Joan Jett, among others.

In 1993, Willner collaborated with filmmaker Robert Altman on Short Cuts, a working relationship which extended into 1996’s Kansas City. He has worked as music supervisor on numerous other films, including Finding Forrester and the Will Ferrell movie Talladega Nights.

Willner was born April 6, 1956.

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