From ‘Rockford Files’ to ‘Law & Order,’ Mike Post Is the MVP of TV Theme Composers

James Garner Mike Post Sam Waterston
TV Guide/Courtesy: Everett Collection, Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images, Michael Daks/TV Guide/NBC/Courtesy: Everett Collection
James Garner of 'The Rockford Files,' Mike Post, and Sam Waterston of 'Law & Order'

Mike Post won his first Grammy Award in 1969 for arranging Mason Williams’ genre-busting hit “Classical Gas,” but his next four Grammys came from composing TV themes. After working as musical director on The Andy Williams Show, Post segued into TV procedurals, scoring many of the iconic cop and lawyer shows of the 1980s and ’90s.

In fact, Post’s work became so ubiquitous that English rock band The Who named a song after his small-screen scoring, their 2006 track “Mike Post Theme.”

And half a century after his start in the TV business, Post is still working hard in Hollywood, scoring episodes of Law & Order and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, two shows that kick off with his instantly recognizable L&O theme and even more famous dun-dun musical cue.

For the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television, Post shared the origin stories of many of his TV themes, and we’re sharing anecdotes from that 2005 interview below, alongside clips of his masterpieces.

The Rockford Files (1974)

Post said he and co-composer Pete Carpenter brought in blues harmonica, synthesizer, flutes, French horns, and trombones for the theme to this NBC detective drama starring James Garner. But it was the electric guitar that gave co-creator Stephen J. Cannell pause. “I said, ‘Just go back and listen to your Peter, Paul and Mary records, Cannell. Don’t give me any trouble,’” Post recalled with a laugh.

Magnum P.I. (1980)

Long before Donald Bellisario co-created the NCIS franchise, he co-created this CBS crime drama, which featured Tom Selleck as a Hawaii-based private eye (decades before the successful reboot). “[It was] very easy to do because I knew the character so well.” Post said. “I’d gone to grammar school, junior high, and high school with Tom Selleck [and have] been friends with him my whole life. And it was easy to capture him. He was right there.”

Hill Street Blues (1981)

Hearing about director Gregory Hoblit’s plan to open this NBC police procedural on the “mean streets” of its unspecified locale, Post suggested to creator Steven Bochco that the music “go against” the imagery and be “something really kind of poignant, but not sloppy, sentimental.” He then went home and came up with the theme song in half an hour.

The Greatest American Hero (1981)

Post provided the music, Stephen Geyer the lyrics, and Joey Scarbury the vocals for “Believe It or Not,” the theme song of this ABC superhero comedy-drama, after Cannell approached the composer with the unusual premise. “Cannell said, ‘This guy’s flying around in a suit, and he lost the instructions, and he’s got this right-wing CIA agent for a control guy.’ I said, “Cannell, this is nuts. … We’ll call up Stephen Geyer and see if he can write a lyric where he can maybe make an analogy between love and flying in a suit.’ And that’s what we did. [It was a] No. 1. record.”

L.A. Law (1986)

In contrast to Hill Street Blues, Post said the theme song for this NBC legal drama, another collaboration with Bochco and Hoblit, was “really hard,” and the final version was the fifth theme that he had written for the show. He went with French horns to convey the majesty of the law, snare drums for a Beach Boys vibe, and alto sax for the sexiness quotient.

Quantum Leap (1989)

After their Magnum P.I. collaboration, Bellisario had Post create a theme for this NBC sci-fi series starring Scott Bakula as a physicist stumbling across space and time. “Bellisario is a really bright guy, you know, having this guy leap around,” Post said. “So it had to be playful, but it had to be quirky. It’s like, ‘What the hell are we doing? Where are we?’ Disorienting.”

Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989)

The composer teamed up with Bochco again on this ABC medical dramedy, which the latter co-created with David E. Kelley. “That’s all about the child, capturing how child-like he was,” Post said of the theme song, referring to Neil Patrick Harris’ child doctor character. “The ultimate fish-out-of-water is this little kid being attached to this great big brain that can be a doctor. And so, I said, ‘Let’s capture the childlike-ness of him. You do the doctor stuff and the visuals and the drama of it, and I’ll capture Doogie. I’ll capture his heart.’”

Law & Order (1990)

Post was involved with Law & Order when it was still a CBS pilot and followed it when it ended up at NBC, composing the theme song, the score, and the iconic dun-dun sound. And because that cue is music and not a sound effect, Post gets a royalty every time it’s used. For that reason, L&O creator Dick Wolf once demanded that Post take him out for dinner, as the composer recalled: “He said, ‘I’m probably the reason that you’ve got this one little piece that you’re gonna be known [for] for the rest of your career.’”

NYPD Blue (1993)

When Bochco co-created this ABC cop drama with David Milch and brought Hoblit on as director, he and Hoblit gave Post “extremely succinct” marching orders, the composer recalled. In fact, they only gave him two words: drums and subway. “I made a groove out of the train sound,” Post said. “And then I took these big, giant drums that were really inspired by Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight.’ … So I just really went to work on that.”