All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for October 2003

Composer Michael Kamen breaks his silence about MS

Sat, Oct. 25, 2003
Patrick Goldstein
Los Angeles Times

Hollywood is a town where everybody knows everybody else's business, from who's having an affair (and with whom) and where to go for the best Botox to who has the juice to get your kid into the most elite private school. But there is one last taboo in Hollywood: Being sick.

Even now, no one knows for sure what mystery illness put Miramax's Harvey Weinstein into a hospital, keeping him out of action for several months in early 2000. When Steven Spielberg had one of his kidneys removed in February 2000, even industry insiders were kept in the dark. When Disney czar Michael Eisner had emergency quadruple bypass surgery in 1994, he registered at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center under an assumed name; when the news made the papers, Disney staffers took great pains to make Eisner look in control, telling reporters the boss was dictating instructions to his top lieutenants from his bed.

For years, rumors swirled that Kathleen Turner was an alcoholic; it turned out she had rheumatoid arthritis. "But it seemed wiser to let people think I was drinking too much, rather than let them know I was ill," she told a reporter after the news was out. "In this business, they'll hire you if you drink, but take two steps back if you're ill."

So it's not surprising that even though Michael Kamen, one of Hollywood's most successful composers, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1996, he didn't speak openly about the disease. In fact, Kamen didn't go public, or as he puts it, "come out of the closet," until last month, when he was awarded the Dorothy Corwin Spirit of Life Award at the annual Dinner of Champions fund-raising event benefiting the Southern California chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. MS is an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system that causes various disabilities, depending on the severity or progressive nature of the case.

Falling ... and smiling

Kamen's reticence about the disease carried over to his private life as well. Even after the 55-year-old composer began using a hand-carved walking stick to get around, he still couldn't bring himself to tell his parents about the disease. Finally a friend convinced him to level with his father, an 87-year-old dentist who still lectures on dentistry for the aged.

"I needed to tell him," says Kamen, who lives in London with his wife and two daughters, but has a home in the San Fernando Valley. "I couldn't keep saying I was carrying a stick around because there was so much ice in England to fall on. It was a relief not to carry that burden around. Trust me, I've been there. The worst deception we have is self-deception."

Sitting near a piano in his living room where he plays Bach concertos each morning, Kamen manages to punctuate his most serious remarks with an infectious grin. Even when Kamen took a tumble making his way up a series of steps at the MS dinner, he came up smiling. As his good friend, director Richard Donner, who caught him before he hit the floor, put it: "Even as he fell, he was smiling. It was like Michael was thinking, 'This is the funniest thing I've ever done, not the most tragic.'"

Kamen grew up in Queens, N.Y., where his parents were liberal activists. His mother lost her teaching license during the height of the McCarthy era. His father knew Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly; Pete Seeger led the fireside sings at Kamen's summer camp.

As a boy, he would visit his Aunt Anna's house on Manhattan's Riverside Drive, curling up in the corner by the piano -- the piano that sits in his living room here -- listening to her friends play in a string quartet. In the late 1960s, Kamen helped found the New York Rock 'n' Roll Ensemble. In the 1970s, he scored ballets, served as musical director for David Bowie's "Diamond Dogs" tour and began writing scores for film.

'Gently flipping out'

Although he began his Hollywood career working on such offbeat films as "Polyester" and "Brazil," he turned to more popular fare in the mid-1980s. He collaborated with Donner on the "Lethal Weapon" series, as well as scoring "Die Hard," "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," "Mr. Holland's Opus" and "X-Men," plus the HBO series "Band of Brothers."

In 1996, visiting his parents in New York, he walked into a grocery store and found himself seeing black spots before his eyes. After he returned to London, he saw his doctor, who ran a battery of tests and then sent him to a neurologist. Riding in a taxi to the appointment, Kamen scanned his doctor's findings. One dryly worded phrase stopped him in his tracks: "Presumed diagnosis: MS." Kamen spent the rest of the taxi ride in something akin to an altered state.

"I sat there, assuming I was going to die," he recalls in a soft voice. "I was gently flipping out. I was totally unaware of how MS could be treated, unaware of the progressive nature of the disease. I just kept thinking that this death sentence had been pronounced on me."

And then, somewhere before I got to the doctor's office, I decided -- (expletive) it, I'm going to live."

Since then, Kamen has worked at managing the disease. He injects himself with Beta Seron and Avonex, drinks an experimental animal serum ("I call it my goat juice") and has abandoned red meat for a diet rich in fruit and vegetables. He also began a vigorous workout regime that helped him shed 40 pounds.

Learning life's meaning

The weight loss was a double-edged sword. He felt better than ever, but his newly slenderized physique prompted other concerns.

Donner met Kamen for dinner three years ago and couldn't help but notice his weight loss and the cane at his side. "I asked him, 'What the hell did you do?' And he told me he had MS," Donner recalls. "For me, it was like the world had stopped. But not for Michael. Even though there are moments where you see past his smile, Michael has never felt sorry for himself. Michael is always looking at the drink half-full. He's not a half-empty person."

Kamen covers any pangs of suffering with a wry smile. At one point, recounting the time his daughter raced after him on Portobello Road in London to say that his idol, Bob Dylan, was on the phone, Kamen explains, "I ran all the way to the house, back in the days when I could run."

The composer says he has no knowledge of having missed out on any jobs because of having MS. "If I lost one, I bet I got another one in return."

His studio work has slowed in recent years. But he did the score for Kevin Costner's "Open Range," wrote the music for the opening ceremonies at the 2002 Winter Olympics and is now turning "Mr. Holland's Opus" into a Broadway musical. He's also collaborating on new projects with Dylan and Leonard Cohen.

Kamen travels extensively and carries a workload most composers would envy, but he acknowledges that he sometimes feels a nagging sense of compressed time.

He says he's also more direct with people. "I'm not always especially calm or kind, and I certainly don't mince words anymore. If someone doesn't deliver on what they've promised, I'm perfectly willing to say ..." He utters a profanity. "MS reminds you that life is really about your family and the people you have the pleasure to collaborate with."

Copyright © 2003, Los Angeles Times