Raksin, Davis: Distinguished Film Composer, Dies at 92

August 9, 2004–David Raksin, distinguished American film composer whose work for “Laura” became one of the most famous movie songs in history, died of heart failure Monday morning in Van Nuys, California. He was 92.

A member of Hollywood's inner club that included Max Steiner, Alfred Newman and Miklos Rozsa — Raksin was respected by three generations of film composers. He continued to write, lecture and mentor younger composers until his health began to fail several weeks ago.

Although he received only two Oscar nominations, for “Forever Amber” in 1947 and “Separate Tables” in 1958, he composed many scores considered classics, including “Force of Evil” (1948), “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), “Carrie” (1952), “The Redeemer” (1957), “Too Late Blues” (1961) and “Will Penny” (1968).

Raksin's other well-known films included “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1947), “Pat and Mike” (1952), “Suddenly” (1954), “Apache” (1954), “Al Capone” (1959) and “Two Weeks in Another Town” (1962).

Raksin was born in Philadelphia and studied piano and woodwinds as a child. His father was in the Philadelphia Orchestra and conducted music for silent movies at a local opera house. The younger Raksin organized his first dance band at the age of 12 and put himself through the U. of Pennsylvania by playing in society bands and radio orchestras.

During the 1930s, he played saxophone and arranged for various orchestras in New York City. A recommendation by George Gershwin led to a position as staff arranger for music publisher Harms Inc., then responsible for the arrangements for virtually every show on Broadway.

Raksin came to Los Angeles in 1935 at the invitation of friends who felt that he might be the right man to handle the music of Charlie Chaplin's “Modern Times.” Chaplin, who whistled and hummed tunes that became the scores for his films, needed a composer to notate and adapt them into a fully orchestrated score.

The stubborn youngster soon clashed with the auteur and Raksin was fired. But conductor Alfred Newman, who had seen Raksin's scores, convinced Chaplin to stick with the young composer, and the two became lifelong friends.

Raksin worked at nearly every studio in Hollywood, although he spent most of the 1940s at 20th Century Fox. There he toiled on what he called “grue and horror” films such as “The Undying Monster” (1942), but the popularity of “Laura” (1944) elevated his status.

Raksin's haunting theme for the Dana Andrews-Gene Tierney detective mystery became even more popular when Johnny Mercer added a lyric and it was recorded by numerous artists. Five, including bandleader Woody Herman and signer Dick Haymes, had top 10 hits and the song remained on radio's “Your Hit Parade” for 14 weeks in 1945. More than 400 artists have since recorded “Laura,” making it one of the most-recorded songs of all time.

In 1951, Raksin, who was briefly a member of the Communist Party, ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Like dozens of other left-leaning artists, he was subpoenaed to testify and did so that September. The 11 suspected “Communists” he named had all been previously been named by others, but Raksin remained conflicted about his actions for the rest of his life and talked about it in numerous interviews about the Hollywood blacklist.

He tackled live TV with “Life With Father” in 1953, and while his biggest TV hit was “Ben Casey” in 1961, he also composed the themes for “Five Fingers,” “Father of the Bride” and “Breaking Point.” He contributed single scores to series including “Wagon Train,” “G.E. Theater” and “Medical Center” and composed for telepics including “The Day After” and his last score, “Lady in a Corner” (1989).

Movie scores remained his primary occupation, however, through the 1950s and '60s. He composed all or part of more than 120 feature films and scored a handful of short subjects, commercials, documentaries and cartoons. Among the latter was the 1953 UPA classic “The Unicorn in the Garden,” written by James Thurber.

Raksin taught film-scoring classes at USC from 1956 to 2003, as well as a course in L.A. cultural history. He also lectured at UCLA and wrote and hosted a 64-part series for public radio, “The Subject Is Film Music,” in the late 1970s. He served as president of the Composers & Lyricists Guild of America and was a longtime member of the board of directors of ASCAP.

Raksin recently completed an autobiography, “If I Say So Myself.”