Composer. Nationality: American. Born: John Towner Williams, Long Island, New York, 8 February 1932; credited as Johnny Williams during early career. Education: Attended University of California, Los Angeles; Juilliard School, New York; studied with Castelnuovo-Tedesco and others. Military Service: U.S. Air Force, 1951–54. Career: Composer and conductor; 1960–62—music for TV series Checkmate ; 1980–93—conductor, Boston Pops Orchestra. Awards: Academy Awards, for Fiddler on the Roof , 1971, Jaws , 1975, Star Wars , 1977, E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial , 1982, and Schindler's List , 1993; British Academy Award, for Jaws and The Towering Inferno , 1975, Star Wars , 1977, The Empire Strikes Back , 1980, E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial , 1982, Empire of the Sun , 1987, and Schindler's List , 1993.
Films as Composer:
I Passed for White (Wilcox); Because They're Young (Wendkos)
The Secret Ways (Karlson)
Bachelor Flat (Tashlin)
Stark Fear (Hockman) (co); Gidget Goes to Rome (Wendkos); Diamond Head (Green)
The Killers (Siegel)
None but the Brave (Sinatra); John Goldfarb, Please Come Home! (Lee Thompson)
Penelope (Hiller); How to Steal a Million (Wyler); Not with My Wife, You Don't! (Panama); The Rare Breed (McLaglen); The Plainsman (Rich)
A Guide for the Married Man (Kelly); Fitzwilly (Delbert Mann); Valley of the Dolls (Robson)
Storia di una donna ( Story of a Woman ) (Bercovici); Sergeant Ryker (Kulik)
The Reivers (Rydell)
Jane Eyre (Delbert Mann—for TV); Daddy's Gone a-Hunting (Robson)
The Cowboys (Rydell)
The Screaming Woman (Smight); Images (Altman); The Poseidon Adventure (Neame); Pete 'n' Tillie (Ritt)
The Long Goodbye (Altman); The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (Sarafian); Cinderella Liberty (Rydell); The Paper Chase (Bridges)
Sugarland Express (Spielberg); Conrack (Ritt)
The Towering Inferno (Guillermin); Earthquake (Robson); Jaws (Spielberg); The Eiger Sanction (Eastwood)
Family Plot (Hitchcock); The Missouri Breaks (Penn); Black Sunday (Frankenheimer); Midway ( The Battle of Midway ) (Smight)
Star Wars (Lucas); Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg)
Jaws II (Szwarc); Superman (Donner); The End (Reynolds); The Fury (De Palma); The Deer Hunter (Cimino)
1941 (Spielberg); The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg); Heartbeeps (Arkush)
Yes, Giorgio (Schaffner); Monsignor (Perry); E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg)
Return of the Jedi (Marquand)
The River (Rydell); Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Spielberg)
The Witches of Eastwick (Miller); Empire of the Sun (Spielberg); Jaws: The Revenge (Sargent); Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (Nimoy)
The Accidental Tourist (Kasdan)
Born on the Fourth of July (Stone); Always (Spielberg); Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Spielberg)
Home Alone (Columbus); Presumed Innocent (Pakula); Stanley and Iris (Ritt)
JFK (Stone); Hook (Spielberg)
Far and Away (R. Howard); Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (Columbus)
Jurassic Park (Spielberg); Schindler's List (Spielberg)
Sabrina (Pollack); Nixon (Stone)
Rosewood (Singleton); The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Spielberg); Seven Years in Tibet (Annaud); Amistad (Spielberg)
Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg); Stepmom (Columbus)
Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (Lucas); Angela's Ashes (Parker)
The Patriot (Emmerich)
Gidget (Wendkos) (arranger)
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Ross) (mus d)
Fiddler on the Roof (Jewison) (mus d)
Tom Sawyer (Taylor) (mus d)
By WILLIAMS: articles—
In Knowing the Score , by Irwin Bazelon, New York, 1975.
Films and Filming (London), July and August 1978.
Radio Times (London), 17–23 May 1980.
Soundtrack! (Hollywood), March 1982.
Cue Sheet (Hollywood), vol. 8, no. 1, March 1991.
Soundtrack! (Hollywood), September 1993.
Film Score Monthly (Los Angeles), December 1995.
Soundtrack! (Hollywood), March 1996.
On WILLIAMS: articles—
Films Illustrated (London), May 1972.
Focus on Film (London), Summer 1972.
Ecran (Paris), September 1975.
Caps, John, in Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), vol. 2, no. 3, 1976.
Soundtrack! (Hollywood), October 1978.
Cook, Page, in Films in Review (New York), October 1979.
Filmcritica (Rome), April 1983.
Soundtrack! (Hollywood), June 1985.
Soundtrack! (Hollywood), September 1985.
Segnocinema (Vicenza), vol. 8, no. 33, May 1988.
Film Score Monthly (Los Angeles), January/February/March 1996.
Variety (New York), 22/28 January 1996.
Segnocinema (Vicenza), vol. 8, no. 33, May 1988.
Positif (Paris), no. 452, October 1998.
* * *
The success of John Williams as a film composer can easily be understood by the mere listing of his number of awarded Oscars and Oscar nominations. His first Oscar was as the music director of Fiddler on the Roof ; the others are for original compositions: Jaws , Star Wars , E.T., and Schindler's List . Also nominated were Valley of the Dolls , The Reivers , The Poseidon Adventure , Cinderella Liberty , The Towering Inferno , Close Encounters of the Third Kind , Superman , The Empire Strikes Back , Raiders of the Lost Ark , Return of the Jedi , Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom , and The River .
Williams began his musical education at the University of California, Los Angeles, studying composition with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Following military service, he studied piano with Rosina Lhevinne at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, with the object—like many successful film score composers before him—of pursuing a musical career on the concert stage not the sound stage. In Williams' case, he wanted to be a concert pianist. As Williams was also adept at jazz piano, he was able to find work and support himself doing recording sessions. This experience enabled him to gain employment as a studio pianist when he returned to Los Angeles in the early 1950s. By the mid-1950s, he had drifted into arranging then scoring title themes (many with a jazz motif) and background music under the name Johnny Williams for countless television programs during what is now known as The Golden Age of Television. His TV work at this time included just about every major and minor hit series. Among them: Alcoa Presents , General Electric Theater , Kraft Music Hall , Playhouse 90 , Tales of Wells Fargo, Bachelor Father, Wagon Train, M Squad, Checkmate, The Virginian, Gilligan's Island, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, and Land of the Giants . Some of his TV show themes—notably those for M Squad and Checkmate —won huge popularity with the public.
With no prior interest in being a film composer, Williams claims, "I stumbled [from TV] into films." He scored his first feature film, the low budget exploitation vehicle I Passed for White , in 1960 and kept busy all through the 1960s jumping from TV to film work, honing his skills as a scorer of, primarily, light comedies ( Gidget Goes to Rome, John Godfarb, Please Come Home!, Penelope, How to Steal a Million, Not With My Wife, You Don't!, A Guide to the Married Man, Fitzwilly )—with an occasional western ( The Rare Breed), war film ( None But the Brave for star and first-time director Frank Sinatra), and thriller ( The Secret Ways , The Killers ) intervening.
The success of his music for the Steve McQueen film The Reivers , generally regarded as a fine example of musical Americana, brought him into focus as a mainline composer; with the music for the telefilm Jane Eyre , then the big screen western The Cowboys , and blockbuster Jaws , Williams became a much in demand, versatile new master of the form. His score for Jaws contributed so much to that film's scariness, said its director, Steven Spielberg, that he insisted on using Williams as composer for all his films ever since—forming one of the most mutually-supportive and identifiable (but longer-lasting) director-composer partnerships since Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann split up.
The tremendous success of George Lucas' Star Wars and its sequels, in addition to other romantic adventure films of similarly epic scope, has tended to typecast Williams and draw attention away from the more subtle and often more interesting work he has done on less high-profile films, such as Family Plot , Hitchcock's last movie, and Robert Altman's send-up of the private eye genre, The Long Goodbye , for which Williams contributed the delightfully satiric score with its many and varied refrains of the standard Hooray for Hollywood .
Williams's success in the movie business has, however, not deterred him from pursuing his concert hall ambitions. Indeed, his success in the one field (largely because of his contributions to the films of box office kings Spielberg and Lucas) no doubt gave him the financial independence, confidence—and clout—to pursue the other. Among his concert works are two symphonies, a flute concerto, and a violin concerto, none of which bear much stylistic comparison with his film scores. In 1980 his career took on another dimension when he was appointed Arthur Fiedler's successor as the conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, a job that required only his summer months and left him free for guest conducting with other orchestras as well as continuing work in films. He left the Pops in the early nineties to devote his full energies to motion picture scoring, where he has further demonstrated his versatility on such diverse projects as the dinosaur-thrillers Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and the historical dramas Schindler's List and Amistad (all four films made by Spielberg as a demonstration, perhaps, of his own versatility); Oliver Stone's controversial speculation-cum-historical docudramas JFK and Nixon ; and the World War II epic Saving Private Ryan (again for Spielberg). After an almost two decade hiatus since the last Star Wars adventure ( Return of the Jedi ), the Star Wars franchise geared up again in 1999 with The Phantom Menace —the maiden voyage of a new trilogy of Star Wars films from producer-director George Lucas . Williams again provided the rousing score, which he will undoubtedly do for the next two episodes in the trilogy as well.
—Tony Thomas, updated by John McCarty