Alex North, 81, Prolific Composer of Film Scores, Dies


Alex North, a prolific film composer who was a frequent bridesmaid but only once a bride on Oscar night, has died.

North, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his first film score, “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1951, was 81 when he died Sunday of pancreatic cancer at his home in Pacific Palisades.

One of the most revered of filmdom’s musical talents, North was an anomaly in a highly visible industry--an artist who preferred to let his work speak for itself.


That work covered a wide range, from the thunder of “Spartacus” to the sweeping themes of “Cleopatra” and on into “Rich Man, Poor Man” for TV, which brought him an Emmy in the 1975-76 season.

He composed music for the 1949 Broadway premiere of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and scored it for film and television.

When “Salesman” opened in New York, the esteemed critic Brooks Atkinson wrote that “Alex North has composed a witch’s chorus that is pithy, practical and terrifying. . . . Give Mr. North a theme and he goes straight to the heart of it without any musical pretentions.”

That success led Elia Kazan to bring the composer to Hollywood for “Streetcar.” Thus began a career during which he composed steadily but spoke little, particularly of himself.

Part of his reticence was political. He had accepted an expense-paid invitation to study at the Moscow Conservatory in 1934-36, and that long-ago move made him suspect in the era of the Hollywood blacklist. After Kazan testified as a “friendly witness” before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, North never worked with him again.

“We were brothers, until he went to the committee and got a lot of my dear friends into trouble,” North told The Times in 1986 on the eve of accepting the first special Oscar given for film music.

That also was the year he was given a lifetime achievement award by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and the National Society for the Preservation of Film Music.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized “his brilliant artistry in the creation of memorable music for motion pictures”--scores that had until that point produced 14 Oscar nominations but no statuettes.

His other films include “Unchained,” and its popular theme “Unchained Melody,” “Viva Zapata,” “The Misfits,” “The Agony and the Ecstasy” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

“Prizzi’s Honor,” one of his most popular scores, was not nominated for an Oscar. He melded Puccini melodies into a contemporary tapestry for the 1985 film. Under a rule change, the score was deemed ineligible for the competition because it was considered an adaptation.

North’s ear ran a gamut from dissonance to lyricism. He wrote for instruments ranging from dulcimers and bagpipes and his sources included jazz (“The Long Hot Summer”) and folk music (“The Rose Tattoo”). The music was performed by small instrumental groups and full symphony orchestras.

He had a long and rewarding relationship with director John Huston (“The Misfits,” “Wise Blood,” “Under the Volcano” and “Prizzi’s Honor”). It began in 1961 when Clark Gable died shortly after completing “The Misfits” and North was ordered to produce a score in four weeks to speed up the release date.

Huston intervened and North was given the time he needed.

Born in Chester, Pa., to poor Russian immigrant parents, North won a scholarship to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and to the Juilliard School.

His classical compositions include a “Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra,” “Revue for Clarinet and Orchestra,” which featured Benny Goodman as soloist when it premiered in 1946, symphonies, cantatas and several ballets for Martha Graham.

“(Aaron) Copland (who had known North since the 1930s) once said it was unfortunate I came out to Hollywood to work,” North said in 1986. “But my so-called ‘sellout’ isn’t really. In film, your music is performed and heard by thousands.”

Or in North’s case, by millions.

Survivors include his wife, Annemarie, two sons, a daughter and two brothers. Services will be private with a memorial to be announced later.