RIP Dominic Frontiere (June 17, 1931 – December 21, 2017)
December 24, 2017
Film and television composer Dominic Frontiere most often known for composing the theme and music for the first season of the classic sci-fi TV series THE OUTER LIMITS, has died at the age of 86 in New Mexico.
Frontiere was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and grew up learning music from an early age. He graduated high school as an accordion virtuoso and would later become recognized as a pioneer of jazz accordion. He got into film and television music when 20th Century Fox’s celebrated music director, Alfred Newman, took notice of Frontiere and sponsored his additional education in adaptation and arrangement; the young Frontiere began in the early 1950s as an uncredited accordionist in the studio orchestra before moving up to arranging and orchestration; one of his first jobs was as an uncredited arranger on Elvis Presley’s first movie, LOVE ME TENDER (1956), which recalled was a wonderful apprenticeship.
“In those days I was under contract at Fox as an arranger for Alfred Newman,” Frontiere said in a 2003 interview with this author. “We had music libraries you could rent for a tune. There must have been six or seven full time arrangers who came from Broadway and all over the place; Franz Waxman, Hugo Friedhofer, Alex North and all these guys, and I could go to them and ask ‘gee, how I do this?’ And I’d get all this incredible information.”
In addition to his musical work in the 1950s, Frontiere also served as a production executive on films and TV. He met producer Leslie Stevens in 1960 and hit it off, and Stevens brought Frontiere into his DayStar production company just as it was gearing up for THE OUTER LIMITS.
The title theme Frontiere composed for that show has become a distinct classic, from its shattering orchestral stinger through its exaggerated climax. The theme immediately conveys a sensation of mixed wonder and disquiet through its eerie, electronic buzz over shimmering harp glissandos and a two-note, see-sawing string motif culminating in cymbal brushing beneath a short, four-note brass fanfare. The end title music was an arrangement of these elements, and often episodes would use these same tracks as dramatic cues. Frontiere’s main theme was later used, with virtually no changes at all, in the 1967 series THE INVADERS.
“I wanted the Main Title to be almost pompous,” Frontiere explained. “I wanted it to have a classical sound, in that there’s a big universe out there. Because I was the producer, I got a big orchestra budget, so I got a big orchestra for the Main Title! It was very successful and I’m very proud of it.”
In 1964, Frontiere scored a TV episode called “The Form of Things Unknown,” with an unusually sizeable 42-piece orchestra; the show was intended to be the pilot of a new TV series to be called THE UNKNOWN; but when the spinoff was cancelled it wound up being broadcast as the final episode of THE OUTER LIMITS’ first season. The series’ second season began after the production company cleared house of the entire DayStar staff, and brought in a new team to manage the second season. Harry Lubin, of TV’s ONE STEP BEYOND, stepped in as Season 2’s composer.
“The music of THE OUTER LIMITS may have been Frontiere’s best work for television,” wrote Jon Burlingame in TV’s Biggest Hits (1996). “His approaches ranged from a lyrical love theme for ‘The Man Who Was Never Born’ to menacing Oriental sounds in ‘The Hundred Days of the Dragon’ and early electronic music for the alien environment of ‘Nightmare.’”
“Dominic Frontiere’s ‘Outer Limits period’ easily qualifies him as equal to the soundtrack music of Jerry Goldsmith or Bernard Herrmann as a composer of the outré,” wrote David J. Schow in The Outer Limits Companion (1999). “Music is most simply described as the movement or sculpting of masses of air, and under Frontiere’s direction, OUTER LIMITS’ air assumed shapes at once disturbing, imaginative, and phantasmal.”
Frontiere remained was most active in television during the 1960s, scoring numerous episodes of shows like BRANDED, 12 O’CLOCK HIGH, THE FLYING NUN, THE RAT PATROL, THE IMMORTAL, and others, with feature film opportunities coming his way near the end of the decade. He scored the 1968 American Western film HANG ‘EM HIGH, starring Clint Eastwood; the film was made in the style of Italian Westerns like Sergio Leone’s DOLLARS trilogy, which had just come out in the US the previous year, and Frontiere was asked to score it in the style of those Italian westerns, composing a compelling score highlighted by a lively main theme that for a time became almost as popular on radio as Morricone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.
Frontiere found a more traditional Western approach when he scored CHISUM (1970) for John Wayne, and that same year Wayne brought him along to score his all-star variety show, SING OUT SWEET LAND, which told the story of America in song (as musical director, Frontiere won an Emmy for the music on that show). He scored Wayne’s Western, THE TRAIN ROBBERS in 1973, as well as 1975’s BRANNIGAN, in which Wayne played the titular Chicago Police Detective, displaced to London to work with Scotland Yard in order to catch an international criminal. Frontiere composed an action-oriented score built around an urban jazz musical milieu in the vein of then-popular successes like BULLITT and DIRTY HARRY.
“I think that motion picture music should make comments about what you see rather than just underscore activity on screen,” Frontiere said. “In the beginning our job as composers was to make sure the audience knew the bad guy, knew the good guy, and knew the love interest. Today, the average audience doesn’t need that – they’re a lot more sophisticated and can figure that out for themselves without help from the music. Unless you’re doing STAR WARS – which is really a Western, no different than CHISUM – you have to look at the picture and try to find a way to make a musical comment on the action as a viewer rather than explain what’s happening.”
In 1980, Frontiere won a Golden Globe award for his score for action-comedy THE STUNT MAN. In Zack Snyder’s film version of the graphic novel WATCHMEN (2009), two cues from one of Frontiere’s OUTER LIMITS scores can be heard, coming from a television set shortly before Laurie (Silk Spectre II) reconciles with her mother, Sally (Silk Spectre). Outside of films, Frontiere had an early hit with his 1959 “space/jazz/exotica” recording Pagan Festival, and a 1960 mood-music album called “Love Eyes,” both of which reappeared together on a 2002 CD reissue. In the 1970s, he arranged music for a number of pop artists ranging from Gladys Knight to The Tubes.
In 1994 Frontiere moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to focus on his family. He continued to score television commercials, composed classical music, and lectured here and there. He also apprenticed several new up-and-coming film composers on line, handing down his own experiences and expertise to a new generation. In 2002 he returned to Hollywood to score a police drama called BEHIND THE BADGE, which was his last work for film.
A hardworking Hollywood veteran for nearly a half-century, Frontiere has left a legacy of music to be honored and remembered.
– Randall D. Larson
For more information about Frontiere’s life and career, read Jon Burlingame’s obit posted yesterday in Variety.
Listen to Frontiere’s first season theme for OUTER LIMITS: