Billy Goldenberg, the Emmy-winning composer and songwriter, died of a heart attack Tuesday morning at his home in New York City. He was 84.
Goldenberg wrote the themes for such 1970s TV series as “Kojak,” “Harry O” and “Rhoda,” composed the pilot scores for “Night Gallery” and “Columbo,” and won Emmys for the TV-movie “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom” and miniseries “The Lives of Benjamin Franklin,” “King” and “Rage of Angels.”
He expanded his 1975 “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom” song score, with lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman, into the score of the 1978 Broadway musical “Ballroom,” directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett of “A Chorus Line” fame. It earned eight Tony nominations including Best Musical.
Reminiscing Wednesday about their collaboration on “Ballroom,” Alan Bergman told Variety: “Billy was one of the rare composers who was also a dramatist. Lots of people can write melodies, but you could tell Billy the situation, what the characters were feeling, and his music would reflect that.”
After his arrival in Hollywood, the prolific Goldenberg scored some of television’s most important films. Omitted from his list of 25 Emmy nominations were his dark and frightening music for Steven Spielberg’s 1971 “Duel”; his combination of electronic and orchestral sounds for Rod Serling’s 1969 “Night Gallery” pilot; and his grandly romantic 1971 “Ransom for a Dead Man,” the second “Columbo” pilot that sold the famous Peter Falk series.
His versatility was demonstrated by his banjo and guitar theme for the western “Alias Smith and Jones,” dignified French horns for the George Peppard mystery series “Banacek,” eerie synthesizer sounds for “Ghost Story,” and the children’s chorus he featured in “Rhoda.”
Goldenberg was born Feb. 10, 1936 in Brooklyn, the son of a violinist mother and percussionist father. He started piano at 5 and became a protege of Broadway songwriter Frank Loesser (“Guys and Dolls”). Jobs as rehearsal pianist turned into dance arrangements, orchestrations for TV shows like “Hullabaloo,” and incidental music for acts including comedians Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
He was musical director for “Elvis ’68,” Presley’s legendary comeback special that reignited the pop star’s career. He held similar posts for TV specials starring Petula Clark, Leslie Uggams, Diana Ross and Ann-Margret. He also wrote a musical based on Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” that enjoyed a brief New York run in 1967.
In late 1968, Goldenberg became assistant to Universal TV music director Stanley Wilson, who assigned him scores for series as “Ironside,” “It Takes a Thief” and “The Name of the Game.” He met Spielberg on the “Night Gallery” pilot and later did the director’s television work including the “LA 2017” episode of “Name of the Game,” the thriller “Duel” and three installments of “Amazing Stories” in the 1980s.
“They told me to write a score for ‘Fear No Evil,’ a story about demonology,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1976. “I thought, wow, I’m really in over my head. I worried a lot, but I worked my tail off, experimenting until I found a way to combine romantic music with a strong flavor of horror. It clicked, and suddenly I’d found a place where I belonged.”
He scored several features including Presley’s “Change of Habit,” “The Grasshopper,” “Red Sky at Morning,” Woody Allen’s “Play It Again, Sam,” “Up the Sandbox,” “The Last of Sheila,” “Busting,” “The Domino Principle” and “Reuben, Reuben.”
But Goldenberg was best known as a television composer, earning additional Emmy nominations for TV-movies “The Marcus-Nelson Murders,” “The Migrants,” “Helter Skelter,” the remake of “Dark Victory,” “The Gangster Chronicles,” “Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy,” “Bare Essence,” and “Nutcracker: Money, Madness and Murder.” He also scored “The Atlanta Child Murders,” “Kane and Abel,” “Lucky / Chances” and “Miss Rose White.”
His TV series themes also included “The Sixth Sense,” “Executive Suite,” “Delvecchio,” “The Lazarus Syndrome,” “Skag,” “Love, Sidney,” and “Our House.” His acclaimed documentary scores included the National Geographic special “The Incredible Machine” in 1975.
“A composer should be sensitive to what’s happening on the screen,” Goldenberg told the L.A. Times. “It’s better to underplay and understate, even though it often becomes a personal struggle for me because I’m very emotional, always ready to pour my heart out.”
He quit television in the late 1990s and returned to New York, although he went on the road with Bea Arthur, playing piano for her one-woman show “…And Then There’s Bea” in the early 2000s. He is the subject of a documentary currently nearing completion by author Gary Gerani (“Fantastic Television”).
The only known survivors are cousins. A memorial service is expected to be held in California at a later date.