Elmer Bernstein, 82; Composer Who Won Oscar ‘Could Do It All’

Times Staff Writer

Elmer Bernstein, the Academy Award-winning composer who created some of the most recognizable music in American films, died Wednesday at his home in Ojai after a lengthy illness, his publicist, Kathy Moulton, said. He was 82.

“He was the consummate composer. He was classically trained and could do it all,” said Marilyn Bergman, president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Bernstein, whose career spanned more than 50 years and included more than 200 films, was nominated for Oscars 14 times, winning in 1967 for “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Among his other nominated scores were “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Man With the Golden Arm,” “True Grit,” “The Age of Innocence” and, most recently, “Far From Heaven.”

He also wrote for television, including “The Big Valley” in the 1960s and “Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law” in the 1970s, as well as many miniseries and TV documentaries. In 1963, he won an Emmy for “The Making of the President: 1960.”

Bergman said Wednesday that Bernstein “was among a group of composers who stood in the pantheon of film composing.” His scores for “The Man With the Golden Arm” and “The Magnificent Seven” are considered classics, she said, and his credit sequence work for “Mockingbird” “stands as one of the best main titles, visually and musically.”


Bergman, a songwriter, said Bernstein composed much of his work in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when motion picture scores were written to complement a specific film, and not with an eye to album sales outside the theater.

“The art of really scoring a film dramatically, where the composer is almost an extension of the screenplay -- that’s very rare today, and it makes it all the sadder,” Bergman said. She said she found Bernstein’s death particularly difficult because it comes close on the heels of the deaths of two other leading composers of his age: David Raksin and Jerry Goldsmith.

“It’s been a bad year,” Bergman said.

Lukas Kendall, publisher of the Film Score Monthly magazine, told the Hartford Courant last year that each time Bernstein got typecast, he transcended it.

“First he was the jazz composer, then he became the western composer, which took him almost into the mid-'70s,” Kendall said.

In the 1970s, Bernstein gave his career another dimension when he scored such comedies as “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Airplane!” “Stripes,” “Meatballs,” “Ghostbusters” and “Trading Places.”

He also created lyrical scores for “My Left Foot,” “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” “Rambling Rose” and other movies.

His 2002 score for “Far From Heaven” garnered praise for its lush, swooning quality, which added a 1950s sensibility to the period movie directed by Todd Haynes and starring Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid.

Bernstein was highly respected by others who practiced his art. Composer James Newton Howard, who wrote the score for “The Sixth Sense,” “The Fugitive” and other films, told The Times in 2001 that he regarded Bernstein among the most influential of composers.

“With his scores, one never has the feeling that the music is working too hard,” Howard said. “Somehow, he has always been able to achieve gigantic effect with the most gentle and graceful gestures.”

For “Mockingbird,” Bernstein said in a 2001 interview for an article in The Times, he began to see that the basic sound of the score should be childlike, because the film portrayed adult problems seen through the eyes of children.

And for “The Grifters,” the 1990 film noir directed by Stephen Frears, Bernstein created what he called a “playfully unsettling” score, “because that’s what the film is like.”

Bernstein was born April 4, 1922, in New York City, the son of a high school teacher who loved jazz.

He studied piano and composition and auditioned for composer Aaron Copland at the age of 12. Bernstein gave his first piano performance at age 15 in New York’s Steinway Hall. He attended the Juilliard School of Music and New York University.

With the encouragement of Copland, Bernstein studied composition with Roger Sessions, Stefan Wolpe and others before World War II, during which he wrote music for the Armed Forces Radio Network. After the war, he continued writing scores for United Nations radio broadcasts, among others.

His first film score was for “Saturday’s Hero,” a 1951 college football film starring John Derek and Donna Reed. Others soon followed, including “Sudden Fear” with Joan Crawford and “Never Wave at a WAC” with Rosalind Russell.

In the 1950s, Bernstein’s career was stymied when he was “gray-listed” during the McCarthy era for his sympathies to left-wing causes. During that time, he worked on low-budget science fiction films with such titles as “Cat-Women of the Moon.”

Then, Cecil B. DeMille, who was directing “The Ten Commandments,” hired Bernstein to “do for Egyptian music what Puccini did for Japanese music in ‘Madame Butterfly,’ ” Bernstein once related. The composer, then just 32, wrote the “source” music for the film, including the songs and dances featured throughout.

About the same time, Bernstein also wrote an innovative score for “The Man With the Golden Arm,” with its memorably jazzy sound, and his career took off.

Bernstein was valued in the industry for his youthful optimism and energy. At age 79, still with no plans to retire, he told The Times:

“I can’t think of anything else that I’d have rather done with my life. I think I made a difference. It is an amazing human privilege to look back at your life and simply be able to say that you had some part in making millions and millions of people feel better, two hours at a time.”

Bernstein is survived by his wife, Eve; sons Peter and Gregory; daughters Emilie and Elizabeth; and five grandchildren.


Times staff writer Monte Morin contributed to this story.