Elmer Bernstein

Elmer Bernstein

OJAI, CALIF.--Elmer Bernstein, who composed musical scores for more than 200 films, and received 14 Academy Award® nominations, died at his home here Aug. 18, after a lengthy illness. He was 82. Some of his compositions have become Hollywood classics, from the rousing theme of "The Magnificent Seven" (1960) to the lighthearted score for 1967's "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (for which he won an Oscar®). MSTies will remember him for one of his early efforts: the music featured in episode 107- ROBOT MONSTER.

Born in New York in 1922, the son of a high school teacher who loved jazz, he was a piano prodigy who earned a Julliard scholarship at the age of 12, and gave his first piano performance at age 15 in New York's Steinway Hall. He also attended New York University.

He caught the attention of Aaron Copland, who steered Bernstein to teachers who could refine his style.

Bernstein's ensuing career as a concert pianist was cut short by World War II: He spent the duration writing music for the Armed Forces Radio Network. In 1950 he came to Hollywood, but after working on a couple of films, offers dried up: Bernstein had been sympathetic to some leftist causes, and was summoned before a congressional subcommittee investigating communists in the film industry. He refused to cooperate, saying he'd never attended a Communist party meeting.

"I wasn't important enough to be blacklisted, so I was put on a gray list," he later recalled. This meant he was not completely shut out of work, as some blacklisted artists had been, but was forced to settle for work on low-budget science-fiction films as 1953's "Cat Women of the Moon." He earned just $800 for his work on "Robot Monster."

His career took a new trajectory a few years later after he was hired by Cecil B. DeMille (a staunch anti-Communist) to write the dance music for "The Ten Commandments" (1956). DeMille was so impressed with his work, he was invited to score the entire picture.

That success led to more work and more success. Bernstein once called melody "the emotional core of a film," and said, "a good line will always win." He demonstrated that with all his compositions, many of which broke new ground for film. He introduced jazz elements into American film scoring with 1955's "The Man With the Golden Arm" and 1957's "Sweet Smell of Success," but showed a delicate touch with the piano and flute themes in 1962's "To Kill a Mockingbird." In the 1960s he scored a number of Westerns, including John Wayne's last seven films.

He also worked in television, creating theme songs for TV series including "Gunsmoke" and "The Big Valley." In 1964, he won an Emmy for his work on "The Making of the President: 1960." He also received five Grammy nominations and two Tony Award nominations.

He was also able to work with a new generation of filmmakers: John Landis and Ivan Reitman invited him to score such comedies as "National Lampoon's Animal House," "Airplane!" "The Blues Brothers," "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters." And in 1990 Bernstein began a long-running collaboration with director Martin Scorsese that would include "Cape Fear," "The Age of Innocence" and "Bringing Out the Dead."

"It's one thing to write music that reinforces a film, underscores it--the traditional sense of stressing, underlining--or gives it added dramatic muscle," Scorsese once said of Bernstein. "It's entirely another to write music that graces a film. That's what Elmer Bernstein does, and that, for me, is his greatest gift."

Bernstein is survived by his wife, four children and five grandchildren.