Vangelis, Oscar-Winning ‘Chariots of Fire’ Composer, Dies at 79

Musician also composed the electronic soundtrack to Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”

CIRCA 1970: Photo of Vangelis Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou, known to cinephiles around the world as Vangelis, has died this week at a hospital in France, his reps announced in a statement. He was 79.

Vangelis is best known for the iconic theme and soundtrack to the Best Picture-winning sports film “Chariots of Fire,” for which he won an Oscar for Best Original Score while the soundtrack reached the top of the U.S. Billboard charts. He also composed the score for Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic “Blade Runner,” for which he was nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe.

Born in Athens, Greece, Vangelis got his start playing keyboards for a pop band called Forminx in the 1960s and later with the prog rock band Aphrodite’s Child, which found success on the European charts. Meanwhile, he entered the film world as a composer for Greek films, expanding beyond that in the 1970s with scores for French documentary filmmaker Frederic Rossif, which gave him a reputation for creating electronic music with a grand operatic flair.

Vangelis’ first introduction to an international audience came with Carl Sagan’s famous docuseries “Cosmos,” which used the track “Movement 3” from the musician’s 1975 album “Heaven and Hell” as its theme song. But his big global breakthrough came in 1981 with “Chariots of Fire,” composing the score and one of the most famous opening scenes in film history as the British track and field team run across the beaches of St. Andrews.

In an interview with The Courier, St. Andrews University film scholar Tom Rice said that Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire” theme “presents universal, and perhaps aspirational, values – the idea of teamwork and camaraderie, freedom, innocence – while also projecting a particular image of British heritage which would be very marketable on film in the 80s and 90s.”

As fate would have it, that opening scene and Vangelis’ theme were not originally intended to start “Chariots of Fire,” but were last minute changes made by director Hugh Hudson and producer David Puttnam during editing of the film after Vangelis convinced them he could compose a better theme for the film.

Along with winning Vangelis an Oscar and BAFTA Award and propelling him to the top of the charts, the “Chariots of Fire” theme, like the film, became a symbol of British athletic pride. The theme was played during medal presentations at the 2012 London Olympics and was also parodied during its opening ceremony by Rowan Atkinson as his comedic persona Mr. Bean, who is tasked with playing the single, repeating synthesizer note that runs underneath the theme.

A year later, Vangelis created another iconic score for Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” creating a lush score for the awe-inspiring yet sinister Los Angeles in which Rick Deckard hunts down rogue replicants. Along with another famous intro piece, Vangelis helped create a classic sci-fi moment with “Tears In Rain,” a piece that plays at the film’s climax as replicant Roy Batty says his final words before dying. The song became so synonymous with “Blade Runner” that it was used again for the final scene of its 2017 sequel “Blade Runner 2049.”

Vangelis continued to score films through 2007, with his final films being the 2004 Oliver Stone historical epic “Alexander” and the 2007 art biopic “El Greco” based on the Spanish Renaissance painter. He would continue to compose new music up to his death, including the album “Juno to Jupiter” in 2021, which was inspired by the NASA probe Juno and worked sounds of its operation in outer space into the music.