Peter Berkos, Oscar-Winning Sound Effects Editor on ‘The Hindenburg,’ Dies at 101

Peter Berkos, the Universal Pictures sound effects maestro and champion of sound editors everywhere who shared a special achievement Oscar for his work on the Robert Wise-directed disaster epic The Hindenburg, has died. He was 101.

Berkos died Tuesday in Rancho Bernardo, California, his friend Brae Wyckoff told The Hollywood Reporter.

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While president of the Motion Picture Sound Editors from 1963-66, Berkos began a successful campaign for his colleagues to gain full membership into the film and television academies and to receive credit onscreen and off for their work.

Berkos himself was uncredited for the first 20 years of his career until Car Wash (1976), and the Oscars would eventually revive its dormant competitive sound effects category from 1983 onward.

Across four decades, he worked for Universal on such films as Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), four features directed by George Roy Hill — Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), the Oscar best picture winner The Sting (1973), The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) and Slap Shot (1977) — Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity (1969), George Seaton’s Airport (1970) and Daniel Haller’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979).

For ABC’s original Battlestar Galactica in 1978, Berkos created the synthesized voice for the deadly Cylon Centurions through a vocoder, and for the sound of the show’s laser shots, he “went to a telephone pole with a metal rod and hit it with a sledgehammer, then I had to add the high tone and take out the low.”

In the mid-1960s, he was tasked with mentoring Steven Spielberg, then 19, in the art of the sound editing. “He turned out to be the most enthusiastic film man I’ve ever met,” Berkos recalled in a 2015 interview. “He’d be there in the morning, waiting for me to open my editing room. He never wanted to go to lunch.”

Born on Aug. 15, 1922, in Cicero, Illinois, Berkos pursued an arts career at the urging of his Columbia College Chicago teacher and ended up directing plays, then stomped in sandboxes and loudly closed doors for live radio plays in Hines, Illinois.

He was prevented from joining his twin brother, Paul, for World War II active service in Europe because of a policy change implemented in the wake of the 1942 deaths of the five Sullivan brothers on board the USS Juneau. Instead, he served as radio operator in the Night Fighter Squadron and remarkably survived a crash of a Black Widow plane that killed its pilot.

After his military service, Berkos and his wife, Sally (a fellow Columbia College alum), moved to Hollywood. He was inspired after reading the 1950 behind-the-scenes book Case History of Movie, co-written by writer, producer and future MGM chief Dore Schary.

Berkos began as an apprentice storeroom clerk at Universal, but he was promoted to sound editor within two months because of the sheer volume of films being churned out at the studio.

When working alongside Welles for just one day, he helped the filmmaker rerecord 62 lines of dialogue for his nearly completed noir Touch of Evil.

On The Hindenburg (1975), Berkos re-created the sound of the zeppelin’s engines by recording a PBY Catalina amphibious aircraft starting up and at full power. However, he struggled to find the right noise for the airship’s groans and creaks as its aluminum frame comes under stress.

“I went back to my room and sat in front of my bench,” Berkos recalled, “and I leaned back to fold my arms across my chest, and all of a sudden the chair I was sitting on — squeak! I started moving back and forth, squeak, squeak! I called my assistant, George, and said, ‘Book me a studio right now!'”

(The film’s climatic explosion, layered with those sound effects, lasts more than 8 minutes, far longer than the real-life 30-second tragedy).

On Oscar night, he shared the special achievement Oscar with visual effects artists Albert Whitlock and Glen Robinson.

“I want to thank the Motion Picture Academy for this very special Oscar in recognition of the sound editor’s creative contribution to motion pictures,” he said. “And to Mr. Bob Wise, thank you for the assignment.”

Berkos also was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the MPSE in 1996, won seven of the organization’s Golden Reel Awards — he designed the trophy — and received an Emmy nomination for his work on the 1972 ABC telefilm Short Walk to Daylight, about riders trapped in a New York subway car after an earthquake.

After retiring in 1987, Berkos turned to writing short stories and novels and published a book of his wife’s poems after she died in 2000. At age 100, he penned his memoir, Vignette of My Life: Book 2.

His twin brother died in 2020 at age 97.

Survivors include his children, Peter and Linda; grandchildren Christina, Cindy, Peter, Anthony, Beth and Tommy; great-grandchildren Ashley, Kaitlyn, Gabby, Anthony Jr., Kristin, Nathan and Katie; and great-great-grandchildren Waylon, Sunny, Oakleigh and Barrett.

Talking about his work on The Hindenburg, Berkos noted that “you never know where you’re going to get sounds from. It’s creative, and that’s the part of the job that I liked best. It paid the most in satisfaction.”

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