Michael Kamen, 55; Grammy-Winning Composer

Times Staff Writer

Michael Kamen, whose numerous movie scores, including those for “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” the “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon” films and the HBO series “Band of Brothers,” made him one of Hollywood’s most successful composers, has died. He was 55.

Kamen, who had multiple sclerosis, died Tuesday of an apparent heart attack at his home in London, according to his publicist.

Kamen’s career was multifaceted. He wrote and directed the music for the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics; served as musical director for Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee at Buckingham Palace; and orchestrated, arranged and conducted a collaboration of the heavy metal band Metallica with the San Francisco Symphony. A 1999 live album, “S&M;: Metallica With the San Francisco Symphony, Conducted by Michael Kamen,” has sold more than 4 million copies.


Beginning in the mid-1970s, Kamen wrote scores for 28 films, from offbeat films such as “Polyester” and “Brazil” to more mainstream fare such as “X-Men,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” Disney’s live-action “101 Dalmatians” and, most recently, Kevin Costner’s “Open Range.”

“He had a phenomenal talent for motion pictures,” producer-director Richard Donner told The Times on Tuesday. “Michael is like a fixture in your life because who do you turn to when you need great music? You turn to Michael Kamen.” Donner worked with Kamen on five movies, including the four “Lethal Weapon” films.

Added Donner of his friend, whose frizzy gray hair and impish brown eyes recently prompted a Times reporter to liken him to an Edward Koren cartoon character: “He looked like the lion in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ He never was anything but the happiest, sweetest, gentlest guy you ever met. He was a very special human being and we’re all going to miss him desperately.”

Kamen earned an Oscar nomination in 1991 for "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You,” the Bryan Adams hit song from “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” The song, with lyrics by Adams and Robert John “Mutt” Lange, won two Grammy Awards.

“An American Symphony” from the 1995 film “Mr. Holland’s Opus” won a Grammy for best instrumental arrangement.

Over the years, Kamen orchestrated music for a range of artists including Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton and the Eurythmics.

“Maybe I should have a shingle in front of my house that says, ‘String arranger to the stars,’ ” he told the Boston Globe in 1992. “But really, I’ve been very fortunate to work with many of my heroes.”

Born April 15, 1948, in New York City, Kamen grew up in Queens, where his parents were liberal activists.

“There was music in my house all the time,” he told the Washington Post in 2000. “Like most left-wing families in Queens, my parents played a healthy diet of Leadbelly and Pete Seeger records, the Weavers, in addition to Bach.”

Kamen, who began playing the piano at age 2, studied the oboe at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City in the 1960s.

“By then, rock ‘n’ roll had become the thing, and the Beatles were happening,” he told the Post. “They changed my life; there’s no question about it. So at Juilliard I started a band called the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble.”

The group was one of the first rock/classical fusion groups. It “made its name by wearing tuxedos, playing society gigs and trying to adapt Bach to rock,” according to the New Rolling Stone Record Guide. “They failed miserably at all that overblown stuff, then went out and made this tremendous rock ‘n’ roll album” -- “Roll Over” (1970).

When the group began being invited to perform with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and other large symphony orchestras, Kamen began writing the orchestrations.

When the group disbanded after seven years and five albums, Kamen was asked to write a score for the Harkness Ballet, the first of eight scores for various ballet companies.

“I was just a rock ‘n’ roll oboist,” he told the London Independent in 1994. “But it seemed within my grasp to do it.”

An impressed David Bowie, who attended the premiere of the ballet, asked Kamen to become music director for the “Diamond Dog” tour, one of the first theatrical rock tours.

Kamen also brought Bob Dylan together with an orchestra at a temple in Japan in 1994, for which Kamen composed and conducted an overture for 350 performers.

Kamen also provided orchestral arrangements for Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and co-produced Pink Floyd’s “The Final Cut” album.

Kamen, who has had a home in London since 1982, was diagnosed in 1996 with multiple sclerosis, an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system that causes various disabilities.

However, he did not publicly reveal his illness until September when he was awarded the Dorothy Corwin Spirit of Life Award at a fund-raiser for the Southern California chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

“When I first saw the diagnosis, I nearly hit the bottom,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in September. “But I just bounced right back. I thought: Well, I don’t feel so bad, and I’m not about to feel so bad. And, if I do, I’ll get better.”

At the time of the interview, Kamen was working on musical stage versions of the films “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Don Juan DeMarco.”

He is survived by his wife, Sandra Keenan-Kamen; his daughters, Sasha and Zoe; his father, Saul; and his brothers, Jon, Paul and Dr. Len Kamen.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial donations be made to the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, 15125 Ventura Blvd., Suite 204, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403.

The foundation is a national nonprofit educational organization for providing musical instruments and support to children and young musicians whose school programs lack funding.