Henry Mancini was not the first composer to introduce jazz elements into film and television scoring, but he was the first to become wildly successful with the public, particularly with the slinky, playful theme for the Pink Panther movies and the brassy, big band sound of the TV series Peter Gunn. Mancini was equally adept at broader, lyrical pop styles, especially in the song "Moon River," the achingly beautiful theme for the film Breakfast at Tiffany's. He won 20 Grammy awards out of 73 nominations and became a familiar public figure as a gentle, avuncular presence on his own syndicated musical TV series and as a frequent guest conductor of orchestral pops concerts.
Young Enrico Nicola Mancini played piccolo and flute with his father in a local Sons of Italy band. In his early teens, he determined to become a film composer and was sent to Pittsburgh to study piano and arranging. Mancini entered Juilliard to study piano in 1942, but within a year was drafted; Glenn Miller arranged for him to play with a service band until he was assigned to combat duty in Europe. Discharged in 1946, Mancini joined the Glenn Miller Orchestra as pianist and arranger. The following year, he followed his wife-to-be to Los Angeles, where he wrote music for bands and radio shows, while bolstering his composition skills through studies with Ernst Krenek and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Mancini landed a job with Universal Pictures in 1952; over the next six years, he worked on 100 films, most of them forgettable low-budget affairs. He made his reputation in 1954, though, with his score for The Glenn Miller Story, which garnered his first Academy Award nomination.
Universal laid Mancini off in 1958, but the composer quickly developed an association with producer Blake Edwards, scoring his TV show Peter Gunn, the theme from which won him a recording contract with RCA. Mancini began issuing extremely popular and award-winning LPs of arrangements of pop and jazz hits, ultimately working on crossover albums with such classical artists as James Galway and Luciano Pavarotti.
Meanwhile, Mancini and Edwards would collaborate on 26 movies between 1960 and 1993. Three of Mancini's most enduring hits came from 1961: "Moon River" from Breakfast at Tiffany's, the similarly lush theme from Days of Wine and Roses, and the playful "Baby Elephant Walk" from Hatari! Despite averaging three film scores a year through the 1980s, Mancini would always be best-remembered for these earliest efforts, along with the theme from 1964's The Pink Panther and perhaps his score for the 1983 TV miniseries The Thorn Birds. He was a more versatile composer than his mainstream fans may think; for example, he adopted an avant-garde style for the 1985 science fiction movie Lifeforce. Mancini's final work was on a stage adaptation of Edwards' Julie Andrews vehicle Victor/Victoria, which originated as a 1982 film and opened on Broadway in 1995, shortly after the composer's death, running more than 700 performances.