Born on April 4, 1922, in New York, NY; son of Edward (a high school teacher) and Selma (Feinstein) Bernstein; married Pearl Glusman, 1946; divorced; married Eve Adamson, 1965; children: (with Glusman) Peter Matthew, Gregory Eames, (with Adamson) Emily Adamson, Elizabeth Campbell. Education: Studied piano with Henrietta Michelson at Juilliard School of Music and composition with Israel Citowitz, Roger Sessions, and Stefan Wolpe; graduated from New York City's Walden School, 1939; attended New York University, 1939-42. Addresses: Agent--Sam Schwartz, Gorfaine Schwartz Agency, 13245 Riverside Dr., Suite 450, Sherman Oaks, CA 91423. Management--Robert Urband, 831 South Spaulding Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90036. Website--Elmer Bernstein Official Website:

One of the most influential--and prolific--composers for American films, Elmer Bernstein has created some of the most memorable movie scores of all time. It is hard to imagine such great films as The Magnificent Seven(1960) and To Kill a Mockingbird(1962) without the distinctive musical backdrops woven by Bernstein. Somewhat ironically, the only Bernstein score to win an Academy Award was the one he wrote for Thoroughly Modern Millie(1967), hardly his most innovative or memorable work. Over the half century that Bernstein has been composing for film and television, he has written the musical scores for more than 200 major motion pictures and television productions.

The son of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Bernstein was born on April 4, 1922, in New York, New York. His father, Edward, a high school teacher, had emigrated from Austria-Hungary, while his mother, the former Selma Feinstein, had come to the United States from Ukraine. Raised in a family that valued the arts, Bernstein first showed his artistic talents as a painter, winning a number of prizes for his work. Encouraged by his parents, he also tried his hand at dancing and appeared in community theatrical productions. By the time he was 12, however, it was apparent to all that Bernstein's first love was music.

Bernstein attended the King Coit Drama School for Children from 1932 to 1935 and began his piano studies with Henrietta Michelson at the Juilliard School of Music. Michelson, impressed with the 12-year-old's gift for improvisation, introduced him to world famous composer Aaron Copland, who in turn arranged for Bernstein to study composition with Israel Citkowitz. He later studied composition with Roger Sessions and Stefan Wolpe as well. Bernstein graduated from New York City's Walden School in 1939 and embarked on a career as a concert pianist. During this time, he also attended classes at New York University from the fall of 1939 until the spring of 1942.

The following year, with World War II raging, Bernstein enlisted in the Army Air Corps. It was while serving in the military that Bernstein first had an opportunity to put his lessons in composition to practical use. He arranged American folk music and wrote dramatic scores for Army Air Corps radio productions. He also scored arrangements for Glenn Miller's Army Air Corps band.

After leaving the military, Bernstein returned briefly to his career as a concert pianist, but in 1949 was asked to provide the scores for two United Nations (UN) radio shows. This work caught the attention of Sidney Buchman, a vice president with Columbia Pictures. It was Buchman who first hired Bernstein to write for the movies, assigning him to score Saturday's Hero(1950) and Boots Malone (1951). Bernstein's music for films first won wider attention in 1952, when he composed a distinctive score for Sudden Fear, a motion picture starring Joan Crawford and Jack Palance.

Bernstein's left-leaning political sentiments all but put his career on hold in the early 1950s. Forced to take a lower profile during Senator Joseph McCarthy's infamous investigations into possible Communist infiltration, he was reduced to working on low-budget films until the political climate changed. Remarkably, two of the films he scored during this period --Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) and Robot Monster(1953)-- became cult favorites.

No less a Hollywood giant than Cecil B. DeMille brought Bernstein back into the mainstream when he hired the composer to write the dance music for his screen epic, The Ten Commandments (1956). Bernstein had hardly begun work on this project when he was asked to score the entire film, a project that consumed almost a year. On the heels of that assignment, Otto Preminger sought out Bernstein to score The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) on the strength of a recommendation from the director's brother, who had been impressed with Bernstein's work on Sudden Fear.

To underscore Preminger's film adaptation of Nelson Algren's novel about a heroin-addicted drummer, Bernstein proposed something that had never been done before: an all-jazz score. He hired Shorty Rogers to put together a big band, featuring Shelly Manne on the drums. The result was electrifying, perfectly conveying in music the feelings of the film's tortured hero, played by Frank Sinatra. Critic Jack Moffitt, writing in the Hollywood Reporter, said: "Elmer Bernstein's historic contribution to the development of screen music should be emphasized. Until now jazz has been used as a specialty or a culmination of a plot point. It remained for Bernstein to prove that it can be used as a sustained and continuous story-telling element in underscoring the mood elements of an entire picture."

Bernstein's success with the jazz-based score for The Man with the Golden Arm set off a wave of movie and television soundtracks built around jazz and earned Bernstein his first Academy Award nomination for an original score. Not surprisingly, the composer was in high demand for more jazz scores, the two most notable being The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Walk on the Wild Side (1962). In an altogether different vein, however, was his work on the score of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), the motion picture adaptation of Harper Lee's wildly popular first novel. The music he composed for the film brilliantly conveyed the sleepy wonder of a childhood in the rural South of the 1930s. The score begins with nothing but a piano and flute as the opening credits roll. This sparse orchestration marked a decided departure from the full, lush, European-style movie themes that dominated the late 1930s and 1940s.

Earlier in his career, Bernstein had broken new ground in scoring the popular western film The Magnificent Seven (1960), creating a heroic theme that became one of Hollywood's first hit instrumentals and later, the musical foundation for a long-running Marlboro advertising campaign. So effective was his score for The Magnificent Seventhat Bernstein was later tapped to score the movie's sequel and to provide the music for John Wayne's last seven films. These included the score for True Grit (1969), and an original song for the movie (cowritten by Don Black) that earned him an Academy Award nomination. Bernstein also scored Hallelujah Trail (1965), which earned him yet another Oscar nomination for Best Original Score, and The Shootist (1976), the last motion picture made by Wayne.

Bernstein's first Academy Award came in 1967 when he won an Oscar for Best Original Score for his work on Thoroughly Modern Millie. His score for that film also earned him a Golden Globe Award nomination in 1968. That same year, the composer was nominated for a Tony Award for best musical play for How Now, Dow Jones. A decade and a half later, Bernstein was nominated for another Tony for Best Musical Score for his work on Merlin (1982). Although work on films continued to occupy most of his time, Bernstein also managed to compose music for a number of television productions, including Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law(1971-1974) and Ellery Queen (September 1975-April 1976), and a handful of miniseries, including Captains and Kings (1976) and Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980).

During the late 1970s and 1980s, Bernstein supplied the musical scores for a number of blockbuster film comedies, including National Lampoon's Animal House, Slap Shot, Meatballs, Airplane!, Stripes, Three Amigos, Ghostbusters, Funny Farm,and Trading Places,for which he earned his twelfth Academy Award nomination. Somewhat concerned that he might be getting stuck in a creative rut, Bernstein turned his focus away from comedy in the late 1980s, rejecting an offer to score Ghostbusters 2, seeking out instead more character- and message-oriented films. One of his first such projects was My Left Foot(1989). Other Bernstein projects from this period included Da!, The Field,and The Grifters, which marked a complete departure from his usual style. Of his work on The Grifters, Bernstein later said, in comments included at his official website: "To me, The Grifters was a quirky film, and that led to the quirkiness of the score, which contained colors different from any score I had previously composed."

In the early 1990s, Bernstein heard that Martin Scorsese was remaking Cape Fear. He called the director to ask if he could adapt the original film's score for the remake. Scorsese agreed, and Bernstein went to work, rearranging the score by Bernard Herrmann--"one of my heroes"--to fit the much different version of the film envisioned by Scorsese. Although Bernstein composed about six minutes of original music for the film, the bulk of his work involved repackaging the original Herrmann score. The composer collaborated again with Scorsese on The Age of Innocence(1993), which earned Bernstein his thirteenth Oscar nomination, as well as Bringing Out the Dead (1999).

For more than half a century Elmer Bernstein has been charming motion picture audiences with his memorable movie scores. He continues to work, supplying the scores for Robert Benton's Twilight (1998), HBO's production of Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), and actor/director Edward Norton's Keeping the Faith (2000). Even with all his work for motion pictures and television, he manages to compose for the concert stage as well, having written two song cycles, three suites for symphony orchestra, compositions for viola and piano, and a number of compositions for solo piano. As if that were not enough, Bernstein is also a professor at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music, where he teaches a course in scoring for motion pictures and television.

by Don Amerman

Elmer Bernstein's Career

Began career as a concert pianist; worked as a musical arranger during military service in the Army Air Corps; scored radio program for the United Nations, which eventually brought offers from film companies, 1949; went to Hollywood to score Saturday's Hero, 1951; first attracted serious attention with his score for The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955; composed scores for highly successful films The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird,and Thoroughly Modern Millie, 1960s; continued composing for film, began composing for television, 1970s; wrote film scores for National Lampoon's Animal House, Slap Shot, Meatballs, Airplane!, Stripes, Three Amigos, Ghostbusters, Funny Farm, Trading Places, My Left Foot, A River Runs Through It, The Grifters, Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear, Age of Innocence, and Bringing Out the Dead, late 1970s-late 1990s; professor at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music.

Elmer Bernstein's Awards

Western Heritage Award for scores for The Magnificent Seven, 1960, and Hallelujah Trail, 1965; Golden Globe Award, Best Original Score for To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962, and Hawaii, 1966; Academy Award, Best Original Score for Thoroughly Modern Millie, 1967; Los Angeles Film Critic Association Career Achievement Award, 1991; star on Hollywood Walk of Fame, 1996; World Soundtrack Academy Lifetime Achievement Award, 2001; Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) Founders Award, 2001.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

August 18, 2004: Bernstein died on August 18, 2004, at his home in Ojai, California, of natural causes. He was 82. Source:,, August 19, 2004; New York Times, August 20, 2004, p. A21.

Further Reading



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