John Morris, Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning composer for many of the classic Mel Brooks comedies including “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein,” died Thursday at his home in Red Hook, N.Y. He was 91.
Morris was Oscar-nominated for co-writing, with Brooks, the title song for “Blazing Saddles” – a sendup of classic movie cowboy tunes sung by Frankie Laine for the opening of Brooks’ 1974 film. Morris was nominated again in 1980 for his dramatic score for the Brooks-produced “The Elephant Man.”
Morris served as Brooks’ composer beginning with “The Producers” in 1967; he wrote the original arrangement for Brooks’ famous “Springtime for Hitler” song, and composed the rest of the underscore.
Morris’ most famous score is undoubtedly “Young Frankenstein,” for which he composed a memorable violin theme that plays a key role in the story. Under the title “Transylvanian Lullaby,” it has even been performed by top classical artists from violinist Gil Shaham to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The composer credited Brooks for the idea. “Mel is smarter than anybody,” Morris said in 2006. He quoted Brooks as saying: “This is about the monster’s childhood. Write the most beautiful Middle European lullaby.” Morris added: “So I wrote this tune, and it was perfect for violin. It’s that kind of melody.”
“Young Frankenstein” now ranks among only a handful of comedies on the American Film Institute’s list of the 250 greatest film scores.
His other scores for Brooks included “The Twelve Chairs,” “Silent Movie,” “High Anxiety,” “History of the World Part I,” “To Be or Not To Be,” “Spaceballs” and “Life Stinks.”
When members of Brooks’ 1970s repertory company went on to direct their own films, Morris scored those too. For Gene Wilder, Morris did “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother,” “The World’s Greatest Lover,” “The Woman in Red” and “Haunted Honeymoon.” He also scored Marty Feldman’s “The Last Remake of Beau Geste” and “In God We Trust.”
Morris’ other film scores were a mix of comedy and drama including “Bank Shot,” “The In-Laws,” “Table for Five,” “Johnny Dangerously,” “Clue,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Ironweed” and “Stella.”
The composer wrote considerable music for television during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, including the theme for Julia Child’s popular public-TV series “The French Chef” and the theme for Craig T. Nelson’s long-running sitcom “Coach.”
He also scored four miniseries – “The Adams Chronicles,” “The Scarlet Letter,” “Fresno” and “Scarlett” – and several high-profile TV movies in the 1990s and early 2000s including “The Last Best Year,” “World War II: When Lions Roared” and “The Blackwater Lightship.”
He won a Daytime Emmy Award for his 1978 score for the afterschool special “The Tap Dance Kid,” and received a Grammy nomination for his soundtrack album of “The Elephant Man.”
Morris was born Oct. 18, 1926, in Elizabeth, N.J., and studied at New York’s Juilliard School of Music and the New School for Social Research.
He was active on Broadway throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, doing dance arrangements for more than a dozen musicals including “Bells Are Ringing,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Mack and Mabel,” and incidental music for such Shakespeare productions as “King Lear” and “Hamlet.”
He wrote one Broadway musical of his own, “A Time for Singing,” a musical version of “How Green Was My Valley” which ran in May-June 1966. He wrote the music and shared duties on the book and lyrics with Gerald Freedman. He also contributed two movements to a ballet, “The Informer,” for Agnes de Mille and the American Ballet Theater in 1988.
Survivors include his wife, a daughter, five grandchildren and two great- grandchildren.