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March 6, 2003
Walter Scharf Dead at 92
by Jon Burlingame

Walter Scharf, Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning film and TV composer, died of heart failure Monday, Feb. 24, at his home in Brentwood, California. He was 92.

Scharf was born August 1, 1910, in New York City, the son of Yiddish-theater comic Bessie Zwerling. While in his 20s, he was one of the orchestrators for George Gershwin's Broadway musical Girl Crazy, became singer Helen Morgan's accompanist, and later worked as pianist and arranger for singer Rudy Vallee.

He began working in Hollywood in 1933, arranging for Al Jolson at Warner Bros., Alice Faye at 20th Century-Fox and Bing Crosby at Paramount. He orchestrated the original version of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" for the film Holiday Inn (1942), and from 1942 to 1946 he served as head of music for Republic Pictures.

From 1948 to 1954, Scharf was arranger-conductor for the Phil Harris-Alice Faye radio show.

A 10-time Oscar nominee, Scharf worked on more than 100 films, receiving nominations for his musical direction on such pictures as Danny Kaye's Hans Christian Anderson (1952), Barbra Streisand's Funny Girl (1968) and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971).

He scored more than a dozen Jerry Lewis films including The Bellboy (1960) and The Nutty Professor (1963), and three Elvis Presley pictures including Loving You (1957) and King Creole (1958). With lyricist Don Black, he wrote the hit Michael Jackson single from the film Ben (1972), which won him a Golden Globe; and scored the popular Walking Tall (1973) and its two sequels.

Scharf composed music for dozens of '60s television dramas including Ben Casey, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible, although he became best-known for his music for the National Geographic and Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau documentaries, which he scored between 1965 and 1975. He received two Emmys for the Cousteau series, in 1970 and 1974, and composed an original symphonic work, The Legend of the Living Sea, for a Cousteau museum exhibit aboard the Queen Mary in 1971.

Scharf's initial work for the concert hall was "The Palestine Suite," written in 1945 and performed at the Hollywood Bowl under conductor Leopold Stokowski. After retiring from films and TV in the 1980s, he returned to concert writing, notably with "The Tree Still Stands: A Symphonic Portrait of the Stages of a Hebraic Man," first performed in 1989, and the 1993 "Israeli Suite."

Scharf wrote an unproduced opera based on Norman Corwin's The Plot to Overthrow Christmas and received the Golden Score Award from the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers in 1997.

He is survived by his wife Betty, daughter Susan Nevens, son Allen Scharf, a sister, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

© 2003 Jon Burlingame

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