Oscar-Winning Composer Dead At 82

Mine electrician Terry Holstein, 49, stands outside the Charles B. Jarrell General Merchandise store in Dry Creek, W.Va., on April 6, 2010. (AP Photo/Allen Breed)
AP Photo/Allen Breed
Elmer Bernstein, the versatile, Oscar-winning composer who scored such movie classics as "The Ten Commandments," "The Magnificent Seven," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Great Escape" and "True Grit," died Wednesday. He was 82.

Bernstein died in his sleep at his Ojai home, said his publicist, Cathy Mouton. She said Bernstein had been in failing health for some time.

Bernstein was nominated for the Academy Award 14 times, most recently in 2002 for "Far From Heaven."

Oddly enough, his only win was for the 1967 film "Thoroughly Modern Millie," one of his weaker works.

Among his more notable efforts were the scores for "Some Came Running," "Birdman of Alcatraz," "The Great Escape," "Hawaii," "The Great Santini," "Cast a Giant Shadow," "My Left Foot," "A River Runs Through It," "Devil in a Blue Dress" and "The Age of Innocence." He also composed several works for symphony orchestras.

Considered a revolutionary by many in the business, Bernstein began film composing in 1950, a time when the field was dominated by the lush, symphonic scores of central European émigrés like Erich Korngold, Miklas Rosza and Max Steiner. Although Bernstein often employed full orchestras, as they did, but he also experimented with other techniques, seeking to fit a film's music to the action occurring on the screen.

For "The Man with the Golden Arm," in which Frank Sinatra played a heroin-addicted jazz musician, he discarded the studio orchestra for a jazz ensemble. He used the same technique for two other contemporary films, "The Sweet Smell of Success" and "A Walk on the Wild Side."

"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," director Martin Scorsese once said. "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."

"To Kill a Mockingbird" presented Bernstein quite a challenge in seeking to do that. For six weeks he could find no way to approach the story, which concerned racism and the Depression in a small Southern town.

"Then I realized that the film was about these issues but seen through the eyes of children," he once recalled. "he simple score was played by a small ensemble, at times employing single piano notes, much like a child picking out a tune."

For the landmark western "The Magnificent Seven," Bernstein composed a galloping march that remained famous for years afterward in TV ads for Marlboro cigarettes.

A piano prodigy who studied composing under Aaron Copland in New York, Bernstein moved to Hollywood in 1950 to work on his first movie score, for the football film "Saturday's Hero." After a few more routine assignments, he made his mark with the moody music for the Joan Crawford thriller "Sudden Fear."

Although both hailed from New York, he was no relation to the legendary composer Leonard Bernstein.

"That's a common question," said Mouton. "They were friends and fellow New Yorkers, but they were not related in any way."

By Bob Thomas