The Twitter page belonging to Hal Willner, who for decades served a key role in the music department of Saturday Night Live, refers to Willner as “so-called Music Producer & Saturday Night Live sketch music guy since Raging Bull debuted,” and it was on that Twitter page that Willner posted this on March 28, indicating he was dealing with the coronavirus:
I always wanted to have a number one – but not this . Pure Arch Oboler with Serling added . In bed on upper west side . H pic.twitter.com/zEqZmqmlWk
— Hal Willner (@WillnerHal) March 28, 2020
Today, April 7, it was reported via numerous sources that Willner, 64, has passed away. No cause of death was officially announced, though Rolling Stone quotes a source close to Willner as saying he was “suffering from symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.”
Willner chose the music used in skits since taking over the duty in 1980, and was caught up in a number of different projects over the years that helped earn him reverence from all corners.
NPR’s memorial on Hal Willner sums him up like this:
But he was perhaps best known as the curator of incredibly wide-ranging tribute projects, and for bringing vastly eclectic creative personalities together. As a 2017 New York Times profile put it, “If you see Mikhail Baryshnikov moving to the novelty song “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” or Conway Twitty sharing a bill with the Kronos Quartet and the cult experimental band the Residents, chances are Mr. Willner was behind it.”
Willner is featured in this behind-the-scenes video about the music of SNL:
Various entertainers inside and outside the SNL realm shared their condolences on social media after word of his passing:
Absolutely devastated to get this news about my weird and lovely pal, Hal. We are heartbroken. Love, love, love to Sheila and Arlohttps://t.co/p2cf9CRIrP
— Julia Louis-Dreyfus (@OfficialJLD) April 7, 2020
He was a friend and he was a teacher.
When he brought us into his world…it made ours make way more sense amongst creating. Thank you, Hal. We are all so grateful for everything that you introduced to the community with your extremely massive heart and joyous brain. https://t.co/he7Tq9z0Lz
— Broken Social Scene (@bssmusic) April 7, 2020
Hal was a part of so much of the music and pop culture comedy we have all enjoyed for years. He was kind and extremely cool. So sorry to hear this. Sending love to his family. https://t.co/UdecryPuEx
— Ben Stiller (@RedHourBen) April 7, 2020
The amazingly talented, innovative, eclectic & visionary music producer Hal Willner passed today. A true artist, a lover of music, a devoted father, a good friend & an angel in my life when I really needed one. Hal helped me find the light in the darkness. Devastated by this news
— Tim Robbins (@TimRobbins1) April 7, 2020
Hal Willner was one a kind. None there are none of that kind. RIP, Hal.
— Michael McKean (@MJMcKean) April 7, 2020
RIP HAL WILLNER. An incredible person who so many of us will miss. Love u pal. pic.twitter.com/SB1G45x0dp
— Adam Sandler (@AdamSandler) April 7, 2020
And outside the SNL realm, as well:
I'm so sad to hear of Hal's passing. He was a great producer and I had the pleasure of working with him on the T.Rex tribute album. Sending love to his friends and family. The music industry has lost an incredible member of our community.https://t.co/Uip09uiSLa
— Joan Jett (@joanjett) April 7, 2020
Outside his work on SNL, Willman produced albums for the likes of Lucinda Williams, Marianne Faithfull and more. He worked with Lou Reed and Jeff Buckley — with Rolling Stone noting that Willman was instrumental in helping Buckley hit it big on the mainstream level:
Willner also played a pivotal role in the career of Jeff Buckley, when he invited Buckley to a 1991 tribute concert in New York for Buckley’s father Tim — an event that introduced the younger Buckley to the New York music community and effectively launched his career.
The New York Times profiled Willner in a piece that’s making the rounds on social media quite heavily after news of his passing — as it portrays the irreverence and creativity that made him such a unique presence — as shared in the memorial tweet from SNL alum Taran Killam:
My friend Hal passed away due to the coronavirus. He was a mad genius. He loved everything weird. He always made me feel good in an environment where it was sometimes hard to feel good about yourself. I really love him. I love you Hal. https://t.co/y1ocQIKo6Q
— Taran Killam (@TaranKillam) April 7, 2020
Rest in peace, Hal Willner.