Herschel Burke Gilbert, an Oscar-nominated film and TV composer best known for his themes for “The Rifleman” and “Burke’s Law,” died June 8 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of complications from a stroke suffered March 23. He was 85.
Gilbert was nominated for three consecutive Academy Awards: original score for “The Thief” (1952), song for the title tune of “The Moon Is Blue” (1953) and scoring of a musical with “Carmen Jones” (1954).
He was most famous, however, for his musical contributions to television, including all of the music for “The Rifleman” (1958-63). As music director for Dick Powell’s Four Star production company, he wrote themes and scores for such shows as “Zane Grey Theater,” “The Dick Powell Show,” “The Detectives,” “The Westerner,” “The DuPont Show Starring June Allyson,” “The Rogues,” “The Gertrude Berg Show” and “Burke’s Law.”
Earlier Gilbert music, written for background-music libraries in the early 1950s, was tracked into dozens of shows including “The Adventures of Superman,” “Racket Squad,” “Topper” and “Ramar of the Jungle.”
Born in Milwaukee, he began studying the violin at age 9. By 15, he had formed his own dance band. He attended Milwaukee State Teachers College and studied for four years at New York’s Juilliard School of Music.
Gilbert’s two-year stint with the Harry James band, as viola player and arranger, eventually took him to Hollywood. He arranged and orchestrated for several composers, including Dimitri Tiomkin on “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Duel in the Sun” (both 1946), and went on to compose the scores for some three dozen films throughout the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, including films by Don Siegel (“Riot in Cell Block 11,” 1954) and Fritz Lang (“While the City Sleeps,” 1956).
Other credits included “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950), “Comanche” (1956), “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” (1957) and “Sam Whiskey” (1969).
Gilbert joined Four Star in 1958. In 1964, he became the executive music director for CBS, supervising and sometimes composing the music for various shows including “Gilligan’s Island.” He received the Cowboy Hall of Fame’s Western Heritage Award for “Damon’s Road,” a two-part episode of “Rawhide” that aired in 1964.
Gilbert retired from TV work in 1966 to form his own record company, Laurel Records, which eventually produced more than 60 LPs and nearly 30 CDs, mostly of contemporary American chamber music.
Over the years, he served as president of the Screen Composers Assn., president of the American Society of Music Arrangers and president of the Society for the Preservation of Film Music (now the Film Music Society). He was a past governor of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences and formerly served as a music-branch executive committee member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Trudy; four children; and three grandchildren. A memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.