Walter Scharf, who composed, arranged or conducted the music for about 250 movies and television programs, including “White Christmas,” “Funny Girl,” “Mission: Impossible” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E,” died Monday at his home in Brentwood. He was 92 and died of heart failure.
Scharf came to Hollywood from his hometown of New York City in 1934 as a musical arranger for pop crooner Rudy Vallee’s orchestra.
He had been raised with an insider’s view of the entertainment business. His mother, Bessie Zwerling, was a comedian in the New York Yiddish Theater.
After he graduated from New York University and moved west, Scharf’s musical career never faltered. Through the 1930s he wrote incidental music for more than a dozen films, although he did not receive screen credit for most of them.
Twelve years later he was nominated for his first Oscar for the score of “Mercy Island,” a 1942 melodrama set in the Florida Keys.
It was the first of 10 Oscar nominations for Scarf. Over the next 30 years he was nominated for his work on “Hans Christian Andersen” in 1953, “Funny Girl” in 1968, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” in 1972 and “Ben” in 1973. But he never won an Academy Award.
He did win an Emmy for his work on a National Geographic television special and a Golden Globe for “Ben,” whose top-of-the-pop-charts theme song helped launch singer Michael Jackson’s solo career. Scharf and Don Black shared a credit for composing the song.
In his more than 40 years in Hollywood, Scharf worked with some of the most popular screen stars. His favorite project was “Hans Christian Andersen,” partly because he and actor Danny Kaye, who played the lead, talked about scenes and ideas over rounds of golf.
He was often asked about the celebrities he met, none more often than Elvis Presley. Scharf worked on five Presley movies, starting in 1957 with “Loving You.”
“I didn’t want to do those movies,” Scharf said in 1992. But, he added, “the royalties were marvelous.” One of his strongest memories of Presley was the way he always referred to him as Mr. Scharf.
Scharf’s nearly two years working with Barbra Streisand on “Funny Girl” led to frequent questions about the demanding star. Scharf was musical supervisor and conductor for the film.
He answered queries by saying that he was ecstatic over the way Streisand could sing. Pressed to comment on rumors of tensions on the set, Scharf was direct, if vague.
“It was easier than I expected,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1970. “We had our little problems, but they never became too trying.”
He rarely composed his music at the piano, preferring a deck chair on his 38-foot yacht, the Lady Betty, which was named after his wife. He often sat on deck to compose music about whales, sharks and salmon. He scored a number of documentaries for National Geographic and Jacques Cousteau specials and won an Emmy in 1971 for “The Tragedy of the Red Salmon,” a National Geographic program.
After he retired from Hollywood in the mid-1970s, Scharf composed a symphony, “The Tree Stands Still,” commissioned by the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel-Air.
Earlier he had seen another classic piece of his, “The Israeli Suite,” performed at the Hollywood Bowl with Leopold Stokowski conducting in the summer of 1945.
Classical compositions were his antidote to the frustrations of the movie and television industry, he said. “I feel like I’m being squeezed through a revolving door,” Scharf said after completing nearly two hours of music for the eight-part miniseries “Blind Ambition,” about the political career of White House counselor John Dean during the Nixon administration. The series aired in 1979.
What made the work exhausting? “My job is to keep you glued to the screen,” Scharf said. “I’m constantly providing little hooks to keep people interested.”
Scharf is survived by his wife, Betty, and daughter Susan. A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. today at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuary, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.