Mr. Bernstein composed his first score in 1950 and over the next half century executed dozens more. He was nominated for an Oscar 14 times and won for the dizzy 1967 movie musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie." That show was later converted into a Tony-winning Broadway musical with a score largely written by Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan.
Mr. Bernstein himself took occasional stabs at writing musical comedy. He wrote some incidental music for the 1954 musical version of Peter Pan. He stepped up his duties with 1967's How Now, Dow Jones, writing the entire score. The short-lived show (220 performances), about a woman who proclaims a false jump in the Dow Jones average in order to get her fiancé to marry her, won him a Tony Award nomination.
He tried one more time in 1983 with the Doug Henning show Merlin. This time his writing partner was lyricist Don Black. The result was largely the same: 199 performances and another Tony nomination.
Several of his film scores, however, have stood the test of time. The brassy, jazz-inflected soundtracks of "The Sweet Smell of Success" (1957), "Walk on the Wild Side" (1962) and "The Man With the Golden Arm" (1956) are among the most memorable of their era. The thundering, percussive, Western-flavored theme of 1960's "The Magnificent Seven" has been hummed by barflies and trivia buffs for decades (not to mention used in Marlboro cigarette commercials). And most movie fans are familiar with the sweeping orchestrations found in 1956's "The Ten Commandments."
Other films Mr. Bernstein composed include "Some Came Running," "The Birdman of Alcatraz," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Great Escape," "Hud," "Hawaii," "True Grit," "National Lampoon's Animal House" (a gig which led to him scoring several more big comedies in the 1980s), "An American Werewolf in London," "My Left Foot," "The Grifters" and "Ghostbusters." In recent years, filmmakers have turned to Mr. Bernstein to anchor the backward-looking moods of their movies. Martin Scorcese, when making a 1991 remake of the 1962 thriller "Cape Fear," hired the composer to adapt Bernard Herrmann's memorable original score. (Scorcese would employ him several more times.) And Todd Haynes used him for 2002's "Far From Heaven," a conscious evocation of the sudsy Douglas Sirk melodramas of the late '50s.
Elmer Bernstein was born in New York City on April 4, 1922, to Edward and Selma Bernstein. He was a protege of Aaron Copland and studied music with Israel Citkowitz (his mentor), Roger Sessions and Stefan Wolpe. He received a thoroughly New York education, attending the Walden School and New York University. Aside from composing, he tried his hand at acting, dancing and painting in early years.
For a brief period in the early '50s, the McCarthy witchhunts left him "gray listed" in Hollywood, forcing him to work on two low-budget science fiction films, "Robot Monster" and "Cat Women of the Moon." Ironically, both became cult classics.
Mr. Bernstein was conductor for one season of the San Fernando Valley Symphony Orchestra. He also helped to found the record label, Varese Sarabande, according to the Internet Movie Database.
He is the father of Peter, Gregory and Emilie Bernstein. Peter is also a film composer and Emilie is an orchestrator in Hollywood.
Talking of his collaborator, Scorcese said, "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. 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."
Elmer Bernstein was frequently confused with composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, leading to his nickname, "Bernstein West."