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Though he had written film scores for some of the greatest directors of all time, including Alfred Hitchcock, Oliver Stone, and George Lucas, composer John Williams was clearly defined by his long-running collaboration with Steven Spielberg. Though prolific and accomplished in his own right, Williams reached unprecedented heights, thanks to his iconic scores for Spielberg-helmed classics "Jaws" (1975), "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981) , "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982), and "Jurassic Park" (1993). Spielberg even had an indirect hand in Williams composing the music for "Star Wars" (1977), perhaps the most iconic and popular film score ever recorded. In all, Williams was decorated with an incalculable number of awards, including Grammys, Oscars and Golden Globes, while earning a reputation for churning out high quality work but with a rare degree of humility and self-effacement. Outside of his work with Spielberg and Lucas, he was responsible for other culturally-prominent scores, including "Superman: The Movie" (1978) and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001). Though his output declined in his later years - he was an active conductor of the world's greatest orchestras - Williams remained, without a doubt, the most successful film composer of all time.
Born on Feb. 8, 1932 in Flushing, NY, Williams was the eldest of four children raised by his father, John, a noted jazz drummer who gigged with the legendary Raymond Scott Quartet, and his mother, Esther. In 1948, Williams moved with his family to Los Angeles, where he graduated from North Hollywood High School two years later. From 1952-54, Williams was drafted into the United States Air Force, where he conducted and arranged music as part of his service. After leaving the military, he attended the prestigious Julliard School for a year, studying with famed pianist Rosina Lhevinne. Williams returned to the West Coast for private study with Mario Castlenuovo-Tedesco, with whom he learned composition, while taking piano and composition classes at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1955, he began his career as a studio pianist under such luminary composers as Alfred Newman, Morris Stoloff, Dmitri Tiomkin and Bernard Herrmann. In fact, he was responsible for playing the jazz solos on Henry Mancini's score for "Peter Gunn" (NBC, 1958-1961), though he was generally dissatisfied with the direction of his career at that point in his life.
Eventually, Williams segued into orchestrations and composition. He composed the music for the sitcom, "Bachelor Father" (CBS/NBC/ABC, 1957-1962) and did the orchestrations for the film version of "Gidget" (1959), as well as for "The Today Show" (NBC, 1951- ) and the detective series, "Checkmate" (CBS, 1960-62). His experience on television, which often necessitated writing on the fly, gave him a wide range of genres to score, from Westerns to comedy to love stories. He kept busy with television throughout the 1960s, working on "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" (ABC, 1964-68), "Gilligan's Island" (CBS, 1964-67) and "Lost in Space" (CBS, 1965-68). But as his career progressed, Williams became increasingly involved in scoring films. After composing the music for such long forgotten features as "Diamond Head" (1962) and "Gidget Goes to Rome" (1963), Williams contributed the score to the well-regarded crime noir "The Killers" (1964), which was based on an Ernest Hemingway short story. The epic furor of "None But the Brave" (1965) prefigured Williams' later compositions, while he provided a degree of elegance to the comic caper, "How to Steal a Million" (1966).
Williams' rise to prominence began in the latter half of the 1960s when he earned the first of many Academy Award nominations for his score on the camp classic, "Valley of the Dolls" (1967). After a brief return to television to compose the score for the family drama "Heidi" (NBC, 1968), Williams earned two more Oscar nods; one for the original music in "The Reivers" (1969), and the other for his adaptation score for "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (1969). Following the offbeat themes for the sci-fi thriller "The Mind of Mr. Soames" (1970), Williams finally earned his first Academy Award for his memorable adaptation of the Broadway music for "Fiddler on the Roof" (1971), which included a richly textured rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man." His Oscar win propelled Williams into the upper echelon of film composers. He earned more nominations for his work on "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972), "Tom Sawyer" (1973) and "The Towering Inferno" (1974), while becoming one of the most prolific composers in Hollywood for his relentless output, which included "The Cowboys" (1972), a tongue-in-cheek score for Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" (1973), and "The Paper Chase" (1973).
But what separated Williams from his colleagues - both contemporary and historical - was his decades-long collaboration with Steven Spielberg, which began with the director's first feature, "The Sugarland Express" (1974). Also that year, Williams suffered a tragic loss when his 43-year-old wife, actress Barbara Ruick, suddenly died from a cerebral hemorrhage while filming Robert Altman's "California Split" (1974), leaving Williams to raise their three children. He continued to score for other famous directors on a wide range of projects, though his career was defined by the often iconic music he scored for Spielberg. In fact, he became forever cemented in the public consciousness after his second collaboration with the director, "Jaws" (1975). The summer blockbuster, which featured two simple, but ominous notes (da-DUM, da-DUM), accomplished the rare feat of turning a film composer into a household name. The haunting score earned Williams his third Academy Award. After working with Alfred Hitchcock on the master's final film, "Family Plot" (1976), Williams collaborated with Spielberg again on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), which allowed Williams to contribute five notes of music that were integrated into the story about friendly alien spacecrafts landing on Earth.
Meanwhile, Spielberg recommended Williams to George Lucas to write the music for the director's ode to sci-fi and Saturday afternoon film serials, "Star Wars" (1977). Borrowing from Strauss, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gregorian chants, Williams crafted a score that introduced the world to the majestic main theme, "Imperial Motif," "Luke's Theme" and the quirky Middle Eastern-like music played by the Mos Eisley cantina band. The soundtrack was a triumph of film scoring, helping to usher in a revival of symphonic scores long considered a past art in filmmaking, while becoming immensely popular when it reached No. 2 on Billboard's Pop Album charts. In fact, the soundtrack spawned a popular, albeit cheesy, disco version, while comedian Bill Murray gave it the lounge singer treatment in an episode of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ). Most important of all, the score earned Williams his third Academy Award. After going back to the well for the moderately successful sequel "Jaws 2" (1978), Williams wrote the iconic score for "Superman: The Movie" (1978). Though not as iconic as "Jaws" or "Star Wars," the score was nonetheless memorable, particularly in the scene where Superman (Christopher Reeve) and Lois Lane (Margo Kidder) fly through the night. Williams earned yet another nod at the Academy Awards for his work on the Richard Donner film.
Following Spielberg's largely forgettable stab at comedy, "1941" (1979) and the gothic horror film "Dracula" (1979), Williams composed scores for the sequels "Superman II" (1981) and "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), the latter of which expanded the "Imperial Motif" into the famed "Imperial March," alternately known as "Darth Vader's Theme." The theme would survive the test of time as a popular addition to live sporting events. For his work on "Empire, he was nominated for Best Original Score at the 53rd Academy Awards. For "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), Williams once again elevated a film with a vibrant score that was not only an emotional underpin for the action on screen, but also created a theme that forever associated itself with the action movie's hero (Harrison Ford). Not only was he nominated for another Academy Award, Williams earned his 11th Grammy. Teaming again with Spielberg, he won an Oscar for his beautiful score for "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982), which featured an uplifting theme as Elliott (Henry Thomas) flies through the sky on his bicycle with E.T. More sequels soon followed, including "Superman III" (1983), "Return of the Jedi" (1983) and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984), though none were as fresh and innovative as their predecessors. Still, he earned Academy Award nods for the latter two.
By the mid-1980s, Williams was widely considered to be the most prolific and decorated Hollywood composers in cinematic history. Following Oscar-nominated scores for "The River" (1984), Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" (1987), and "The Witches of Eastwick" (1987), Williams broke no new ground with the forgettable sequels "Jaws: The Revenge" (1987) and "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" (1987). He returned to form with more Oscar nods for "The Accidental Tourist" (1988) and "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989), while covering much of the same territory for "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989). After penning the music for "Home Alone" (1990), which earned him an Oscar nod for Best Song as well as best score, Williams wrote the chilling music for Oliver Stone's "JFK" (1991), a documentary-like look at the conspiracy surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Teaming with director Ron Howard, he composed the sweeping, atmospheric music for the director's period epic, "Far and Away" (1992) before returning for another triumphant collaboration with Steven Spielberg on "Schindler's List" (1993). Awed by the film, Williams was at first doubtful that he could do justice to the film. He joined forces with famed violinist Itzhak Perlman to create a haunting and somber score that not surprisingly took home his fifth Academy Award.
Also that year, Williams worked with Spielberg on the much lighter special effects bonanza, "Jurassic Park" (1993). By this time in his career, Williams had spent 14 seasons as the conductor of the famed Boston Pops, with whom he recorded a series of acclaimed albums. But in 1993, he put down the baton to retire, though retaining the title of Boston Pops Laureate Conductor. He moved on to become Artist-in-Residence at the Tanglewood Music Center, which he followed with a string of guest conductor spots with the London Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with whom he performed an annual concert of his movie classics at the Hollywood Bowl for many years. Continuing to churn out film scores for the biggest names and most important films, Williams teamed up again with Oliver Stone for "Nixon" (1995), the director's Shakespearean take on the fall of President Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins). Once again, Williams received an Academy Award nomination for his exquisite work. After Sydney Pollack's mediocre remake of "Sabrina" (1995), Williams worked with Barry Levinson on "Sleepers" (1996) and reunited with Spielberg for "Amistad" (1997), both of which earned Oscar nominations for Best Score.
Over the years, Williams was asked to compose for more than just film and television. In 1984, for example, he was asked to write the "Olympic Fanfare and Theme" for the opening ceremonies of that year's games in Los Angeles. Williams was later commissioned by NBC to write music for their coverage of the 1988 summer games in Seoul, South Korea, while also contributing themes to the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, GA in 1996 and the winter games in Salt Lake City, UT in 2002. Meanwhile, he continued his Oscar and Grammy triumphs with Spielberg's WWII masterpiece, "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), earning a nod in the former and a win in the latter for best instrumental composition written for the screen. Joining forces again with Lucas, he built upon previous success for his work on the long-awaited prequel, "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" (1999). However, like the films themselves, little was memorable from the score, especially considering the epic success of the original "Star Wars" compositions. Williams earned more Academy Award nominations for his work on "Angela's Ashes" (1999), "The Patriot" (2000) and "AI: Artificial Intelligence" (2001), a seemingly yearly tradition for the composer at that juncture in his career.
In 2000, Williams was inducted into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame alongside country-western singer Garth Brooks. Both were the first to be inducted when the Bowl established their Hall of Fame that year. Williams created yet another iconic and culturally significant score for "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001), which contained the popular "Hedwig's Theme," while earning him more accolades at the Grammys and Academy Awards. He continued to work with Spielberg on "Minority Report" (2002), "Catch Me If You Can" (2002) and "The Terminal" (2004). In fact, aside from "The Color Purple" (1985), Williams scored every single Spielberg film. Meanwhile, after leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the inaugural gala for Los Angele's Walt Disney Concert Hall in late 2003, he received more Oscar nominations for his scores on "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (2004), "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005) and "Munich" (2005), the last marking his 22nd collaboration with Spielberg.
As the years piled up, Williams became less prolific, preferring instead to maintain current collaborations rather than forging new ones. While he continued to receive credits on films like "Superman Returns" (2006), "Failure to Launch" (2006), "The Astronaut Farmer" (2007) and "Yes Man" (2008), most were for work previously written. He did score "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (2008), though, again, no new ground was broken. Williams did remain active on stage, conducting sold out concerts with the New York Philharmonic, which were originally intended to be one-time events, but instead turned out to be so successful that more were later performed, including three tribute performances to director Stanley Donen in 2007. In 2009, Williams was honored as a recipient of the National Medal of Arts for his achievements in symphonic music for motion pictures as a composer and conductor. The award was presented to Williams by President Barack Obama, who went on to say that "his scores have defined and inspired modern movie-going for decades." As he neared his 80th birthday, Williams limited his original film work to ongoing collaborations with Spielberg, for whom he created appropriately rousing scores for films like the computer-animated adaptation of the beloved French comic book series "The Adventures of Tintin" (2011) and the epic tale of the unbreakable bond between a boy and his steed during World War I in the period drama "War Horse" (2011). For his efforts in adding gravity and scope to the events depicted in Spielberg's lauded presidential biopic "Lincoln" (2012), Williams once more earned Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for Best Original Score.
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Special)
Moved to Los Angeles with family
Served in the U.S. Air Force
After Air Force service, worked as jazz pianist in New York while attending Juilliard
Composed music for the TV series "Bachelor Father" (CBS)
Did orchestrations for the feature film "Gidget"
Scored first feature film "Because They're Young"
Received first Academy Award nomination for "Valley of the Dolls"
Earned first Academy Award nomination for Original Score for "The Reivers"
Won first Academy Award for adapting the score for the film version of "Fiddler on the Roof"
First collaboration with Steven Spielberg, "The Sugarland Express"
Re-teamed with Spielberg for the director's second film "Jaws"
Again collaborated with Spielberg for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"; earned an Academy Award nomination
Scored the memorable music for "Star Wars"; the soundtrack sold over four million copies
Returned to score "The Empire Strikes Back"; introduced "The Imperial March" as the theme for Darth Vader and the Galactic Empire; earned an Academy Award nomination
Composed the music for "Raiders of the Lost Ark"; earned an Academy Award nomination
Provided the score for Spielberg's "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial"
Scored the final film in the "Star Wars" trilogy, "Return of the Jedi"; earned an Academy Award nomination
Returned to score, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"; earned an Academy Award nomination
Composed the theme for "NBC Nightly News"
Scored Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun"; earned an Academy Award nomination
Scored the music for "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"; earned an Academy Award nomination
First screen collaboration with Oliver Stone, "Born on the Fourth of July"; earned an Academy Award nomination
Received two Oscar nominations for scoring the music for Spielberg's "Hook" and Stone's "JFK"
Won fifth Academy Award for Spielberg's "Schindler's List"
Earned another Oscar nomination for Spielberg's "Amistad"
Teamed with Spielberg for the 18th time on "Saving Private Ryan"
Devised the piano-dominated score of "Angela's Ashes"; earned 38th Academy Award nomination
Provided the themes and underscore to George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace"
Received Oscar nominations for Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" and for the film adaptation of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"
Scored Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can"; received an Academy Award nomination
Scored the theme music for the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics
Returned to score the music for "Star Wars: Episode II - The Attack of the Clones"
Earned 2 Grammy nominations for his work on "Catch Me If You Can" and "Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets"
Composed the music for "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"; received Grammy and Oscar nominations for Best Score
Earned Oscar nominations for Rob Marshall's "Memoirs of a Geisha" and Steven Spielberg's "Munich" for Original Score
Conducted music for "Star Wars Episode III - Revenge of the Sith"
Received Grammy and Oscar nominations for the films, "Munich" and "Memoirs of a Geisha"
Re-teamed with Spielberg for "Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull"; earned two Grammy nominations
Composed music for the Spielberg directed films "The Adventures of Tintin" and "War Horse"
Re-teamed with director Spielberg for "Lincoln"