John Morris, Composer for Mel Brooks’ Films, Dies at 91
Posted January 28, 2018 4:29 p.m. EST
John Morris, a composer who had a long list of movie, theater and television credits but was best known for a long association with Mel Brooks that earned him Academy Award nominations for “Blazing Saddles” and “The Elephant Man,” died Thursday at his home in Red Hook, New York. He was 91.
His daughter, Bronwen Morris, said the cause was a respiratory infection.
Morris, a genial son of British parents, and Brooks, a boisterous comedy director from Brooklyn, had worked on two short-lived Broadway musicals (“Shinbone Alley,” in 1957, and “All-American,” in 1962), when Brooks asked him to write the film score for “The Producers” (1967). It was Morris’s first movie score — the music that accompanies a film — and Brooks’ first feature.
Over the next 24 years, they would collaborate on 10 more films.
“He was my emotional right arm,” Brooks said in a telephone interview. “Music tells you what to feel and he knew what I wanted you to feel. He composed it and made it happen.”
“The Producers” is Brooks’ story of a has-been producer (Zero Mostel) and his neurotic accountant (Gene Wilder), who swindle their investors in a tasteless musical about Nazis — “Springtime for Hitler,” also the title song — that they are certain will flop instantly.
Brooks wrote the lyrics for “Springtime” (“We’re marching to a faster pace/Look out, here comes the master race!”) and Morris impressed Brooks early on by suggesting that the melody be used as a continuing motif throughout the film.
“He’d turn it into something funny or soft or upbeat,” Brooks said.
Together they also wrote the title song for “Blazing Saddles” (1974), Brooks’ hit Western parody about a black sheriff who saves a town full of racists under siege from moronic outlaws. Their song — an ode to the quick-witted sheriff (Cleavon Little) who “conquered fear and he conquered hate” — brought Morris and Brooks an Academy Award nomination for best original song. (The winner was “We May Never Love Like This Again” from “The Towering Inferno.”)
That year Morris also wrote the score to Brooks’ horror-film satire, “Young Frankenstein,” whose main theme, “Transylvanian Lullaby,” featured a heart-wrenching violin solo.
Brooks cautioned Morris against writing scary music for a film about a vulnerable, if terrifying, monster (Peter Boyle) animated by Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder), the grandson of Victor Frankenstein.
“Mel told me to write the most beautiful Eastern European lullaby that you can,” Morris told the online magazine Film Score Monthly in 1997. “That would be the heart of the monster. It would be his childhood.”
Morris continued to compose for Brooks’ comedies, among them “Silent Movie” (1976) and “High Anxiety” (1977), but took a detour with him into drama with “The Elephant Man” (1980), about a severely disfigured man (John Hurt) who is saved by a surgeon from a freak show in late-19th-century London. Brooks’ company produced the film, which David Lynch directed.
Writing that film’s main theme required several weeks, Morris said. “The theme had to convey someone who worked on the edges of the circus, and the melody had to be poignant,” Morris said in the Film Score Monthly interview. “It has two layers. It has the tune and then it has the over-layer, which is the circus. It took me a long time to arrive at that point.”
John Leonard Morris was born on Oct 18, 1926, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. His father, Thomas, was an engineer who designed the revolving doors at the Tiffany & Co. flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. His mother, the former Helen Sherratt, was a homemaker.
When John was about 3, he and his parents visited friends in the Bronx who owned a piano, and he immediately became fascinated with the instrument, and eventually, his parents bought him one of his own. The Morrises moved to Independence, Kansas, when John was young, and he began taking piano lessons before returning east to study piano at the Juilliard School in the late 1940s. He also attended the University of Washington and the New School for Social Research.
Morris was too shy for the public life of a concert pianist, so he worked as an accompanist (for Judy Garland, among others), dance arranger, conductor and composer. He worked for Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, where he wrote music for Shakespeare in the Park and was musical director for the pre-Broadway production of “Hair.” And he helped create “A Time for Singing” (1966) a Broadway musical inspired by the novel “How Green Was My Valley,” for which he wrote the music and collaborated on the lyrics and book with Gerald Freedman.
For the next 40 years, he composed music for numerous movies, including those directed by Wilder and Marty Feldman, as well as the comedy “The In-Laws” (1979) and the stark drama “Ironweed” (1987), and for television shows including the sitcom “Coach” and the miniseries “The Adams Chronicles” (1976) and “Scarlett” (1994), a sequel to “Gone With the Wind.”
“I know how to write tunes,” he said in an interview he recorded in 2009 with one of his granddaughters, Hayley Morris. “All I have to do is think Johannes Brahms. And I know what Brahms does. I know how he wrote, and you just do what he does and you’re in business."
But Morris was not part of the Broadway production of “The Producers,” a musical that opened in 2001 and won 12 Tony Awards, including one for Brooks’ score. While Brooks said he solicited Morris’ opinions on some of the show’s songs, Bronwen Morris said she was unaware of her father communicating with Brooks about the musical.
In addition to his daughter, Morris is survived by his wife, the former Francesca Bosetti; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A son, Evan, died in 2014. Although he received an Oscar nomination for “The Elephant Man,” Morris remained frustrated that Lynch had mandated that he use Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” a popular 20th-century orchestral work, in a segment of the film rather than stay with the original score.
“I told Lynch what’s going to happen is this piece is going to be used over and over and over again in the future,” Morris told Film Score Monthly. “And every time it’s used in a movie it’s going to diminish the effect of the scene. Now, when people see ‘The Elephant Man,’ they go ... ah, that’s the music from ‘Platoon.’ ”