Shirley Walker, 61; won Emmys for film scores

Times Staff Writer

Shirley Walker, an Emmy-winning composer and orchestrator who broke ground for women in the film industry by scoring major movies and carving out a niche in the action genre, including a prolific career writing music for animated superheroes on TV, has died. She was 61.

Walker, who was also known as a mentor to young composers, died Nov. 30 at Washoe Medical Center in Reno of complications after a stroke, her family said.

In an industry in which fewer than 5% of the established composers are women, Walker stood out for the number of films she had scored -- nearly 20 -- and for breaking into the action field long dominated by men, said Vasi Vangelos, her longtime agent.

"She had a fierceness. She wasn't going to be typecast to do a delicate score. She was going to show she had the muscle and power of any other composer out there, and she did," he said.

Walker was the conductor or orchestrator on several of Danny Elfman's early scores, including Tim Burton's "Batman" (1989) and "Dick Tracy" (1990). She performed the same role for Hans Zimmer on several early scores, including "Days of Thunder" (1990) and "Backdraft" (1991), but always emphasized that her role was to make the composer's work shine, according to an appreciation on the Film Music Society's website,

She was "one of the most incredible composers I've ever met," Zimmer said in the appreciation. "And the way she fought for the rights of musicians -- she was really nice but she could have a real edge to her. I loved the edge."

Among her best-known works were scores for animated superhero series on TV. As music director of "The Adventures of Batman & Robin" in 1996, she won her first Emmy. Her compositions for "Batman Beyond" in 2001 brought her a second.

When Warner Bros. hired her in 1990 to supervise the music for "Batman: The Animated Series," she decided to see if she "could find the next generation of orchestral film composers and give them a chance to do this work," Walker told Daily Variety in 2002.

Her "determination to open doors of opportunity for aspiring composers is unrivaled in our industry," according to a statement by Lolita Ritmanis, one of more than 30 composers Walker brought in to work on the "Batman" series.

When Walker was hired to score the 1992 film "Memoirs of an Invisible Man," Warner Bros. announced that it was the first time a woman had been chosen to compose the score for a major studio film.

Walker later scored several action thrillers, including John Carpenter's "Escape From L.A." (1996) and the three "Final Destination" films released between 2000 and 2006.

On television, Walker started out composing for "Falcon Crest" (CBS, 1981-90) and contributed to "China Beach" (ABC, 1988-91). She was nominated for an Emmy in 1996 for composing for the Fox science fiction series "Space: Above and Beyond."

She was born in 1945 in Napa. Her father was an industrial patternmaker for the Navy, while her mother gave piano lessons and raised five children.

In high school, Walker was a piano soloist with the San Francisco Symphony. She attended San Francisco State on a piano scholarship and married in 1967. Her husband, Don, an audio consultant in the music business, died of lung cancer in March. For more than a decade, Walker composed music for industrial films and wrote jingles before breaking into the film business by playing synthesizer on Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979).

Her last film score was written for the thriller "Black Christmas."

Walker is survived by two sons, Colin, a subtitle editor, and Ian, a musician, both of Los Angeles; her mother, two brothers and a sister.

A memorial service is being planned for early next year.

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