Harry Sukman

Active - 1954 - 1979  |   Born - Dec 2, 1912   |   Died - Dec 2, 1984   |   Genres - Drama, War, Adventure, Western, Romance

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Harry Sukman was one of the better practitioners of the peculiar and little-understood art of music adaptation. Although he did compose music for many films and television shows, he was at his best in adapting other composers' work. Born in Chicago in 1912, Harry Sukman revealed himself a music prodigy as a child, and attended the Metropolitan College of Music before he was in his teens. He made his concert debut as a pianist at age 12 at Kimball Hall and, while still a high school student, served as an accompanist to violinists Mischa Mischakoff and Louis Persinger, and cantor Joseph Rosenblatt. Sukman's teachers included Rudolph Ganz (piano) and Felix Borowski (theory, composition). He was employed in his twenties as a radio conductor and pianist, and moved to Hollywood in 1946, where he was hired as a pianist by the music department at Paramount Pictures. The studio's music director, Victor Young, took him under his wing and introduced him to the art of film scoring, both composition and adaptation. Sukman's entry into this field coincided with a steep decline in output by the major studios, and he didn't receive his first screen credit until 1954, when he wrote the music for Herbert L. Strock's science fiction thriller Gog. His second film was a similar science fiction effort, Riders to the Stars, and over the next four years he wrote the music for such independent productions as Lewis Allen's A Bullet for Joey and Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns and Verboten (parts of which were adapted from existing classical pieces); he was also the music supervisor on Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Story. Sukman broke into the big time in 1960 when he served as music director and composer for George Cukor and Charles Vidor's Song Without End, a drama based on the life of composer/pianist Franz Liszt. That film won him an Oscar (shared with Morris W. Stoloff) for his adaptation of Liszt's music. Sukman was also nominated the following year for his work on the movie Fanny, and in 1966 for the music from The Singing Nun. Ironically, the most interesting movies that he scored during this period were a pair of genre films that would never have been considered for any awards, A Thunder of Drums and Underworld U.S.A. Sukman began doing work on television during the early '60s with episodes of such series as The Virginian, Tales of Wells Fargo, Dr. Kildare, The Eleventh Hour, and Gentle Ben, and he later wrote the music for The High Chaparral and one season of Bonanza. His last major movie credits were for Welcome to Hard Times and The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell, after which he worked exclusively in television. Sukman's final project was the original network miniseries production of Salem's Lot (1979), which boasted a nasty, subtle music score. He also wrote songs in collaboration with Peggy Lee, among others.

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