Legendary composer of Laura, The Bad & the Beautiful enjoyed worldwide respect
David Raksin, the composer of Laura, The Bad and the Beautiful and dozens of other classic film scores, died of heart failure at 8:55 a.m. Monday, August 9, at his home in Van Nuys, Calif. He was 92 and had been in failing health for the past several weeks.
One of the most respected of all American film composers – both for his music and his celebrated wit – Raksin began his long and distinguished movie career in 1935, when he came to Hollywood to assist Charlie Chaplin with the music of Modern Times. He composed music for more than 100 films, including Laura (1944), one of the most-recorded songs in history with more than 400 different versions.
He was born in Philadelphia Aug. 4, 1912, and began his musical studies as a pianist. He was later instructed in woodwinds by his father, a conductor and performer in concert bands and for silent movies who also played in the renowned Philadelphia Orchestra.
The younger Raksin led his own dance band at age 12, later expanding it for broadcasting on the local CBS radio station, WCAU. He taught himself orchestration while a student at Philadelphia's prestigious Central High School, and then put himself through the University of Pennsylvania by playing in society bands and radio orchestras. There he won several prizes while also arranging and conducting the first programs of written and improvised jazz at football games.
Upon graduation from Penn he went to New York City, where he played and sang with various bands and arranged for radio and recording orchestras. The pianist in one of the latter, Oscar Levant, alerted his friend George Gershwin to an upcoming broadcast of Raksin's arrangement of "I Got Rhythm."
Gershwin's enthusiasm led him to recommend the young musician to the famous Harms/Chappell team that arranged the music of nearly every Broadway show of that time. It was in 1935, while he was in Boston for the out-of-town tryout of a musical, that he received an invitation to work with Chaplin in Hollywood. Raksin took Chaplin's whistled and hummed tunes and adapted them into a fully orchestrated score for Modern Times.
The following year he served as assistant to conductor Leopold Stokowski, who premiered Raksin's concert piece, Montage, with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Raksin returned to Hollywood and remained there, composing music for movies, and later radio and television. His many other film scores included The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), Force of Evil (1948), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Carrie (1952), Pat and Mike (1952), Suddenly (1954), Apache (1954), The Redeemer (1957), Al Capone (1959), Too Late Blues (1961), Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) and Will Penny (1968).
He received Academy Award nominations for his music for Forever Amber (1947) and Separate Tables (1958). He also scored several classic UPA cartoons in the 1950s, including The Unicorn in the Garden, Madeline and Giddyap.
Among the composer's dozens of television programs were the themes and scores for Ben Casey and Life With Father as well as various episodes, specials and made-for-television movies. Among the latter was The Day After (1983), the controversial ABC movie about a nuclear explosion in the Midwest.
He also composed and conducted music for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, The Olympics: A History of the Golden Games. He even appeared as an actor in the pilot of the 1975 CBS series Beacon Hill.
For radio he wrote, narrated and conducted interviews for a three-year series of 64 hour-long programs, The Subject is Film Music, in the 1970s.
Raksin's stage works included three musicals: If The Shoe Fits, Feather in Your Hat and The Wind in the Willows; several ballets and incidental music for plays, including Volpone, Noah, The Prodigal and Mother Courage. At the request of Igor Stravinsky, Raksin made the original instrumentation of Stravinsky's Circus Polka, as choreographed by George Balanchine for the Ringling Bros.-Barnum and Bailey Circus.
He often conducted his own music with orchestras around the world, including appearances at the Hollywood Bowl and New York's Lincoln Center. For Los Angeles' long-running series of Monday Evening Concerts, he conducted the premieres of several contemporary works.
Raksin was the first member of his profession to receive a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation of the Library of Congress. He conducted his oratorio, Oedipus Memneitai (Oedipus Remembers), in 1986 at the Coolidge Auditorium in Washington, D.C.
Raksin was also the first film composer invited by the Library of Congress to establish a collection of his manuscripts at its Music Division. The Library of Congress book Wonderful Inventions, published in 1985, included three articles devoted to his career in films, including his own account of his work with Chaplin on Modern Times.
He wrote a number of articles for various publications, often recounting various aspects of his career and the people he knew, including Chaplin, Stokowski, Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg. He wrote a survey of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition for CD-ROM medium and had recently completed his autobiography, If I Say So Myself.
Raksin served as president of the Composers & Lyricist Guild of America between 1962 and 1970, and as president of the Film Music Society during the 1990s. He was a longtime member of the board of directors of the performing-rights society ASCAP.
He also had a long career in academia, teaching film composition at USC from 1956 to 2003; from 1968 to 1989 he also taught "Urban Ecology" in USC's School of Public Administration. From 1970 to 1992 he lectured at UCLA, and he also served as a visiting professor at U.C. Santa Barbara.
Over the years he was honored with career achievement awards by the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers, the Society for the Preservation of Film Music and ASCAP.
He is survived by a son, Alex, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times; a daughter, Tina; and three grandchildren. Services will be private. A public memorial is pending.