A graduate of New York's Juilliard School of Music, where he studied the viola as well as composition and arranging, Herschel Burke Gilbert has enjoyed a long and varied career as a composer for films and television. After leaving Juilliard, he was engaged as an arranger with Harry James and His Orchestra in the early '40s, and in 1946 he joined the music department of Columbia Pictures, initially as an arranger and orchestrator, although that year he did receive his first composer credit, for the studio's release of Mr. District Attorney. He also orchestrated parts of Dimitri Tiomkin's scores for Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life and King Vidor's (and David O. Selznick's) Duel in the Sun. By 1948, Gilbert had moved on to regular work as a film composer, authoring the score (including several startlingly effective action themes) for the PRC's topical thriller Open Secret. He began a steady output of music for low to medium-budget movies coming from studios such as Eagle Lion and Allied Artists as well as various independent producers working out of United Artists and smaller production and distribution companies. His music graced such unusual B-films as The Highwayman and Three Husbands, and also the very high-profile Jackie Robinson Story, which is still widely shown more than 50 years later and was later issued on DVD. Gilbert's breakthrough beyond the ranks of his postwar composer peers came, however, with his score for Russell Rouse's experimental feature-film thriller The Thief (1952), starring Ray Milland, in which there was no dialogue; thus, his music, unimpeded by anything save sound effects, carried the entire forward momentum of the action. Gilbert received an Oscar nomination for his work on the movie. The following year, he was responsible for writing the music for Otto Preminger's production of The Moon Is Blue, a romantic comedy whose release benefited from an outsized controversy -- movie industry censors objected to the use of the word "virgin" and the presentation of its relatively risqué sexual subject matter -- but the producer released it anyway, gaining a lot of publicity in the bargain. The Moon Is Blue got Gilbert a second Oscar nomination, and Preminger used him again, this time as music director, on his 1954 production of Carmen Jones. In between these assignments, he also wrote the scores for such lower-profile projects as Kid Monk Baroni, Project Moonbase, Sabre Jet, and Vice Squad. Following two Oscar nominations, one would have expected Gilbert to get more visible assignments, but he remained curiously wedded to very selective projects, often involving independent producers working through studios such as Universal and Allied Artists. Among his mid- to late-'50s projects were the scores for Edgar G. Ulmer's The Naked Dawn and Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps. Part of the reason for Gilbert's relatively low profile in feature films may have been his burgeoning career in television.
As a neophyte composer trying to earn a living, Gilbert began writing music for television very early, from 1951. Most of his work, at the dawn of the 1950s when the medium was new and nobody knew for sure how profitable it might be (and, thus, what kind of investment was appropriate), consisted of providing cues and generic themes to music libraries, which would then be licensed to television producers (or, in rare cases, movie producers who were very strapped for cash). Gilbert authored new material for his early television scores but also commissioned re-orchestrations of his own earlier work (most notably the action cues from Open Secret, re-orchestrated by Joseph Mullendore) into music cues that ended up being tracked into filmed television series such as The Adventures of Superman (whose first season made extensive use of re-orchestrated sections of Gilbert's score for Open Secret, among other material). Other series that included re-orchestrations of his music were Death Valley Days, Sky King, The Adventures of Kit Carson, and anthology shows such as Four Star Playhouse. His relationship with the producers of the latter series led to Gilbert's composing and conducting the music, including the memorable title theme, for a new series that they were making called The Rifleman. Its success, and the impact of Gilbert's scoring for the program, led to his appointment as the music director of Four Star Television. Gilbert's presence as head of the television studio's music department led to the hiring of a range of talented composers whose work graced their productions, including Joseph Mullendore, David Kahn, and Rudy Schrager. Gilbert also released an album of main title themes from the Four Star library in 1962 on the Dot label. Along with Stanley Wilson at MCA-TV and a handful of other music directors, Gilbert was a mainstay of the television industry for two decades and helped elevate the level of musical scoring in the medium to a significantly higher level than most observers had believed possible. The other series that used his music or bore his name as music director included Burke's Law, Gilligan's Island, The Big Valley, Assignment Underwater, The Detectives, and Wanted: Dead or Alive. Following his work on the crime-thriller Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), Gilbert was associated exclusively with the small screen for the next decade. He returned to writing music for features in the late '60s and worked well into the 1970s, on films including Paul Leder's cult slasher movie I Dismember Mama and Matt Cimber's low-budget chiller The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976). ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi