After a long career playing the trombone in bands and as a studio musician, Carpenter started working with composer Earle Hagen and writing music for television on shows like Bewitched (1964), Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (1964), and The Andy Griffith Show (1966–1967).
Carpenter's collaboration with the much younger composer Mike Post began in 1968 and lasted until his death nearly two decades later. The two saw some success when they wrote the theme for producer Stephen J. Cannell's first show, the police detective drama Toma in 1973. But their big breakthrough was the top 10 Billboard hit and Grammy Award-winning theme for Cannell's private detective drama The Rockford Files in 1974, starring James Garner.
Film and television works
Carpenter and Post went on to score over 1800 hours of television, and to compose the music for both television shows like CHiPs (1977), Magnum, P.I. (1980), Tenspeed and Brown Shoe (1980), The A-Team (1983), Hardcastle and McCormick (1983), Riptide (1984), Hunter (1984), Stingray (1985), and movies like Vanishing Point (1971), Rabbit Test (1978), and Will: G. Gordon Liddy (1982). In addition to their 1975 Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement for Rockford, for Hunter the duo won a Broadcast Music Incorporated TV Music Award in 1989.
The theme for the A-Team and The Rockford Files have also made appearances on other television programs and movies, including the pilot for David Chase's hit show on HBO, The Sopranos (1999), and the films Not Another Teen Movie (2001), Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (2003), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), and Miracle (2004).
Carpenter was married to actress Maybeth Carr, the daughter of silent screen star Mary Carr. He had two children, Pete, Jr., and Nancy. He and his wife lived at several locations Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley, including North Hollywood's Valley Village. He died there, aged 73, on October 15, 1987 of lung cancer. The Magnum, P.I. episode "Innocence... A Broad" was dedicated to him. In 1989, Mike Post and the BMI Foundation established a Pete Carpenter Memorial Fund to benefit young composers.