Remembering Leonard Rosenman
Updated: Mar 21, 2022
I’ve wanted to write this piece for some time, but have put it off because it’s a little complicated—and, also, personal and emotional.
The first time I remember consciously encountering the music of Leonard Rosenman was when I saw Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, probably in its opening week (Thanksgiving 1986). We were visiting grandparents in Philadelphia and I was a big Trekkie—I was 12—so my dad took me.
It was my first time seeing a movie in a big, modern movie theater—the theaters on Martha’s Vineyard were old and quaint—and the booming, stereo sound literally hurt my ears.
I loved Star Wars and Star Trek (I was a nerdy kid in the 1980s, that’s what we did) and identified James Horner as “the Star Trek composer” after his sweeping scores to Star Trek II and III.
The thought of anybody scoring Star Trek IV other than Horner was as ridiculous as, for example, going to see Return of the Jedi and hearing Vangelis music.
But when Star Trek IV started—hurting my sensitive ears—the fanfare sounded a bit…off. Then it launched into what I remember thinking sounded like Christmas music—I was apoplectic. What the hell? Did Horner go insane?!?
The credit came up, “Music by Leonard Rosenman,” and at least I had confirmation I wasn’t losing my mind—it was a different composer. (Leonard Nimoy wanted to work with his old friend Rosenman and also wanted the film to go in a different, lighter direction, after all the gloom and death of the previous two pictures.)
I liked Star Trek IV and over the years have grown to like the score. I was very happy to help out with Intrada’s expanded CD release in 2011.
The next time I encountered the music of Leonard Rosenman was when he scored RoboCop 2 in 1990. This I saw by myself at the Strand theater in Oak Bluffs some time that summer—after it was already a bomb and the theater was virtually empty.
I was not yet 17, the movie was rated R—and the theater didn’t allow me in until I convinced some random guy to bring me in as my “guardian.” Sheesh.
The movie seemed lame and mean-spirited—disappointing from the director of The Empire Strikes Back—and the score was fine…until we got to the end credits.
It was a big, energetic setting of the main theme we had heard during the movie—all well and good. Gradually there were female voices with the orchestra—okay, fine. Then the female voices began to sing…“Ro-Bo-Cop! Ro-Bo-Cop!”
I could not believe my ears!
It was hilarious. And wrong. And ludicrous. It was akin to a gag they’d do in an Airplane! movie. I literally could not believe people had signed off on this nonsense.
This was around the time I started publishing the newsletter that became Film Score Monthly. So I was getting into film music in a major way.
Back in the 1980s—pre-Internet, pre-IMDb—it was almost impossible to find information about film composers. John Williams was a public figure, Mancini too, but other than that—good luck.
The only way you’d see what these folks even looked like was for five seconds on an Oscar telecast.
Occasionally, Starlog magazine—our gateway to all things geek—would print a composer interview. Those four or five pages would become our entire “bible” for the life and career of somebody like Goldsmith or Horner.
Starlog printed a profile of Rosenman in their November 1991 issue (#172)—by David Hirsch, who later became a contributor to FSM—and I was excited to read it.
It was shocking! These interviews were usually anodyne affairs, like an athlete saying he “gives 110%”—yeah, whatever.
But Rosenman was outspoken. He was arrogant. He talked about his own brilliance, repeatedly, and he didn’t seem to be joking. He was over-the-top in his self-praise.
And he trashed his colleagues! The most egregious part was when he went after Basil Poledouris’ music for the original RoboCop as “absolutely dreadful,” and “a dopey, lousy score.”
Really, those were the exact words! Not just hinting—he slammed other composers’ work and talent. (Read it yourself.)
This was especially galling because Rosenman seemed to have it exactly backwards! Basil’s Robo score was terrific, dramatic, and fit that film like a glove—while Leonard’s (“Ro-Bo-Cop!”) was borderline parody.
Rosenman asserted his music was more “modern” than other composers—when in fact it seemed, to me, obviously overwrought and old-fashioned.
I later realized he meant in musical terms, his style dated from a later tradition of concert hall/art music. Cinematically, to me it seemed stuck in the 1950s. At the time, I just thought he was deranged.
I hadn’t looked at this Starlog piece in years, and Leonard’s comments are even harsher than I remembered.
I later learned his comments did get back to Basil, who was, not surprisingly, upset. It wasn’t like Basil became clinically depressed—but this was something people just didn’t do (trash a colleague), it was rude and unfair.
Because of this one Starlog piece, we—as fans—had the impression that Leonard Rosenman must be a huge asshole.
Well...it wasn’t true.
He was opinionated, yes—but not at all an asshole.
I found him to be completely the opposite.
Fast forward to 1998, and the beginning of the FSM “Silver Age Classics” line. We prioritized Fantastic Voyage, which was one of Jeff Bond’s favorite unreleased sci-fi scores.
This really is a great score. Modern and atonal (except for the very end), it was a tour de force of avant garde technique. And it was quite cleverly spotted (Rosenman’s doing): there is no music in the film at all until the miniaturized sub, the Proteus, goes inside the human body on its mission.
We got in touch with Rosenman and Jeff interviewed him for the notes.
We found, contrary to the impression we got from his Starlog piece, that he was perfectly affable and likable.
Yes, he was full of himself, but somehow, in person, not hateable—any more than you hated Muhammad Ali for his “I’m the greatest” routine.
He was sincere, but not mean-spirited. He was judgmental about other composers and scores, yes—but not about you. He treated you like a great friend.
He was pleasant, upbeat and, dare I say it, fun. We liked him.
But there was one thing…he seemed to have a hard time remembering names. Jeff had to fill those in for the interview quotes. But it wasn’t a big deal.
After the Fantastic Voyage CD was released, we asked if he would come autograph copies at Creature Features in Burbank. He said yes, and we held the event and it went very well, and he seemed to have a good time.
Here’s a photo I framed of Jeff heading into the event, which I still have in my office to this day. (Jeff, don’t let it go to your head.)
The next year, we released Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and again reached out to “Lenny” for an interview.
At this point, the chronology breaks down a bit for me. I’ll try to remember as best I can.
Jeff interviewed him for Beneath and, again, he was perfectly nice and cooperative.
And again he had a hard time with names. And not obscure names, but Charlton Heston-level names. It seemed mildly concerning.
At one point he asked to see us for lunch and suggested a Beverly Hills Jewish deli—it was either Nate n Als or Greenblatts. We went—I think it was me, Jeff and maybe Doug Adams, in town at the time.
I remember we were seated and saw Lenny through the windows, crossing the street, and there was a lot of traffic and he wasn’t using a crosswalk—the headline flashed into my mind, “Academy Award winning composer Leonard Rosenman killed meeting fans for lunch.”
We had a nice lunch and…again, names were a problem. But he certainly was happy to answer any question we asked and shower us with his opinions.
I asked what he thought of Maurice Jarre, and he said, “Who?” I said, “You know, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago.” And he blew a raspberry—no lie!
On another occasion, I think he called and asked to see me for lunch. Wow—I was flattered. He was taking his car in for repairs and asked if I could pick him up there.
My memory is that I picked him up at a Mercedes-Benz repair shop in Beverly Hills (he drove an old green diesel Mercedes) and took him to an Italian restaurant not far away that I think was called Café 8 ½ (after Fellini), which I liked.
After lunch, he had some time to wait for his car, still, so I drove him down to our Culver City office where we surprised Jeff Bond: “I happen to have Leonard Rosenman right here…”
We played him some of the Beneath CD master, which he liked.
I remember him sitting on our office couch while the “Ape March” played and I asked, “How would you conduct this?” And he immediately started to air-conduct it. (I guess all conducting is air-conducting, but you know what I mean.)
These are the things that are cool when you are a lifelong film music fan!
Some more weeks or months went by and I remember the phone rang again, and it was him, and he asked me to lunch. I said, sure…but this time, was beginning to wonder if something was up with him, mental health-wise. He didn’t seem all “there.”
I picked him up outside his house in Laurel Canyon—he standing there, waiting, smoking a cigarette. I drove my old Subaru Impreza, which I had from 1995–2020.
We went to the Gaucho Grill that used to be across the street from the Virgin Megastore. We ate and he told some charming stories (more on that below). At one point he launched into a conspiracy theory that there was someone trashing his career and holding him back. It seemed weird. (He had sort of hinted at this in previous meetings.)
So this time I broached the subject…hey, are you okay?
And no, he wasn’t. He had a lesion on his brain, he explained, that was making it difficult for him to remember names. (At least I wasn’t imagining things.)
He said he used to do The New York Times crossword and found he was having a hard time with it. So he went to a doctor and the doctor explained he had this lesion.
But he was mentally unaffected when it came to musical composition, which was still his full-time pursuit.
I drove him back to his house. I had a cassette in the car of Bullitt by Lalo Schifrin (the original soundtrack performance, at that time unreleased)—and, for that matter, a tape deck.
So I played him the Bullitt main title, going down Sunset Blvd., and asked what he thought. He usually hated everything but this, he said, was good. He seemed to respect it. So good for you, Lalo!
Back at his house, he showed me his writing office. I gave him a phone number of some place that I thought would be helpful for something he was looking for—it might have been Intrada, for a CD—and as he wrote the number down, he kept messing up the digits.
So I was like, okay...this is somebody dealing with a serious mental illness, and I’m not qualified to be taking him out for lunch without some guidance.
Musically he was, in fact, unaffected, as he asserted. He showed me his manuscripts for what I think he said was a “Dinosaur Symphony,” and it was a very dense, intense musical composition.
His house had a piano in the living room and he serenaded me with some of the theme to Rebel Without a Cause. It seemed to be a very special thing to hear, this famous, beautiful melody, coming from the artist who created it.
His wife, Judie, came home—and, in the kitchen, I remember, she finally clarified that Leonard had been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia.
It’s not Alzheimer’s, but it is a progressive, incurable mental illness, with some similar effects in the presentation. So this was bad news.
I remember asking, sheepishly, “Is he okay?” And I think she said some version of “Well, no, he’s not okay.” (Like, duh.)
Obviously, for any family to deal with a loved one suffering from an illness like this is a terrible, wrenching and emotional ordeal.
One of the reasons I never wrote about this before is that I didn’t want to be intruding on the Rosenmans’ privacy. I feel like enough time has passed that I can write my recollections respectfully, and hopefully it’s not a problem.
Judie was very nice and I liked her quite a bit. And if I’m getting any details wrong today, or speaking out of school—anybody who notices a mistake, for that matter, whether you’re family or just a fan—please write me and I’ll fix it.
At the time, standing in the Rosenmans’ kitchen, I felt like I finally had an answer that made sense: All of Leonard’s symptoms—the forgetting of names, having music unaffected, the paranoia about somebody trashing his career—fit the diagnosis (as I later looked it up).
As did the fact that his personality was wonderfully unaffected: he was charming, agreeable, and pleasant to be around.
He was also quite funny. He said two things that day that I thought were hilarious. They were both a bit morbid, but well-delivered.
He had been married four times. His second wife, an actress and lyricist named Kay Scott, had, on New Year’s Day in 1971, excused herself to go to the bathroom—where she promptly had a stroke and died. She was only 43.
I was like, Jeez.
And he had, in fact, been very close with James Dean (how he scored his first Hollywood film), who famously died in an auto accident at age 24.
During lunch, contemplating this, I said, “Wow...you’ve had a rough life. You lost your wife, your best friend…” He said, “Yeah...”
And added, “My brain!”
It was, really, perfect comedic timing.
I asked what his parents did—I was simply curious. He said he had been very close to his grandparents, who had encouraged him musically. But—“My parents were horrible, evil people. I only wish they were still alive, so I could kill them!”
I burst out laughing.
I’ve always had a warm spot for old Jews because they reminded me of my extended family (from New York and Philly) who I would only see a couple of times a year, at weddings, bar mitzvahs and the like.
“Lenny” felt like one of them—like family.
But I did feel uncomfortable around somebody with a degenerative neurological disease. Not only was it terribly sad—he truly had possessed a towering intellect, not just in music, but in everything—but I didn’t feel like I had the training to make sure I was interacting with him in the most respectful and palliative way.
I don’t think I saw him again, after that time at his house.
Fast forward to 2008 when we got word he had died, at 83, of a heart attack. He had been an Oscar winner and significant figure in the concert hall and in Hollywood, and it was nice to see proper obituaries. He had been living, in recent years—I am pretty sure—at the Motion Picture Hospital in Woodland Hills.
I went to the memorial service Judie organized on the Warner Bros. scoring stage (where he had recorded many of his famous scores). It was a lovely program. Leonard Nimoy was not there, but sent a message. Actor Robert Brown (Lazarus from Star Trek’s “The Alternative Factor”) gave a great talk with enjoyable stories.
Thankfully, Jeff Bond wrote up this service at the time.
Not in Jeff’s piece was one additional speaker, who I think talked near the end. He was a young man who didn’t seem to know anybody else—in fact, he knew very little about Lenny’s musical career or Hollywood importance, and said as much.
It turned out there were a handful of young folks who volunteered at the Hospital, to keep the residents company and take them out from time to time.
Lenny was a big hit with these young people. They loved him—and called themselves, if memory serves, “Leonard’s posse.”
Even during Leonard’s illness and final years, when his brilliant mind had been ravaged by dementia, he was a sweet and lovely person who adored coffee, cigarettes, and good company.
What I remember this young man saying is that Leonard would see a tree and stop, just in awe, and go, “Wow, will you look at that? What is that? Wow…That is so, so beautiful.”
It was just a tree—and he might have not even remembered the name for it anymore—but Leonard was captivated by the magnificence of the world around him.
[Update: Deniz Cordell tells me that he remembers Leonard’s daughter Danielle telling this story at the memorial. I am sure Deniz is right!]
I felt a little bit like one of these young people, for I had the same experience: he might not have been all “there” anymore, but at heart, Lenny was a beautiful person.
After the service at Warner Bros., I went to the reception at Lenny and Judie’s house, where I rubbed elbows with Irvin Kershner and Nick Meyer, among others. (It was the only time I met Kershner, who I idolized for The Empire Strikes Back. He was in his mid-eighties and died a couple of years later, but seemed sharp as a tack.)
I also met Lenny’s son Jonathan, and his first wife Adele, and other relatives…and they were terrific.
So, that’s my Leonard Rosenman story. I hope I am not mangling any of the details, but I would like all the fans to know—especially those still dubious of Leonard because of a magazine profile thirty years ago—that Lenny was not at all like you might think from that one article.
He actually, in the time I knew him, seemed to be completely, utterly lacking in guile—which is why he would speak in such outrageous terms about his colleagues.
He was who he was: a truly great composer, and an enjoyable, sweet and entertaining personality.
And I liked him very much.
UPDATE 3/20/22: Look what I found in a pdf of old scans...