John Morris, a composer who had a long list of movie, theatre and television credits but was best known for a long association with Mel Brooks that earned him Academy Award nominations for Blazing Saddles and The Elephant Man, has died at his home in Red Hook, New York aged 91.
Morris, a genial son of British parents, and Brooks, a boisterous comedy director from Brooklyn, had worked on two short-lived Broadway musicals when Brooks asked him to write the film score for The Producers (1967). It was Morris' first movie score and Brooks' first feature. Over the next 24 years, they would collaborate on 10 more films.
"He was my emotional right arm," Brooks said. "Music tells you what to feel and he knew what I wanted you to feel. He composed it and made it happen."
The Producers is Brooks' story of a has-been producer (Zero Mostel) and his neurotic accountant (Gene Wilder), who swindle their investors in a tasteless musical about Nazis – Springtime for Hitler, also the title song – that they are certain will flop instantly.
Brooks wrote the lyrics for Springtime ("We're marching to a faster pace/Look out, here comes the master race!") and Morris impressed Brooks early on by suggesting that the melody be used as a continuing motif throughout the film. "He'd turn it into something funny or soft or upbeat," Brooks said.
Together they also wrote the title song for Blazing Saddles (1974), Brooks' hit western parody about a black sheriff who saves a town full of racists under siege from moronic outlaws. Their song – an ode to the quick-witted sheriff (Cleavon Little) who "conquered fear and he conquered hate" – brought Morris and Brooks an Academy Award nomination for best original song.
Morris also wrote the score to Brooks' horror film satire Young Frankenstein, whose main theme, Transylvanian Lullaby, featured a heart-wrenching violin solo.
Brooks cautioned Morris against writing scary music for a film about a vulnerable, if terrifying, monster (Peter Boyle) animated by Dr Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder), the grandson of Victor Frankenstein.
John Leonard Morris was born on October 18, 1926, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. His father Thomas was an engineer who designed the revolving doors at the Tiffany & Company flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. His mother, the former Helen Sherratt, was a homemaker. When John was about three, he and his parents visited friends in the Bronx who owned a piano, and he immediately became fascinated with the instrument, and eventually, his parents bought him one of his own.
Morris was too shy for the public life of a concert pianist, so he worked as an accompanist (for Judy Garland, among others), dance arranger, conductor and composer.
For the next 40 years, he composed music for numerous movies, including those directed by Wilder and Marty Feldman.
In addition to his daughter Bronwen, Morris is survived by his wife, the former Francesca Bosetti; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A son, Evan, died in 2014.
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