Composer and conductor John Williams, one of America's most celebrated musical talents, is the best-known creator of music for films, scoring some of the most revered movie classics of recent decades, including "Jaws," "Star Wars," "Superman," and "Schindler's List," as well as adventures featuring Indiana Jones and Harry Potter. He is also the most successful film composer: He has won five Academy Awards, 24 Grammys and three Emmy Awards.
In January 2019 Williams received an Academy Award nomination for "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker," bringing his lifetime total Oscar nominations to 52 - the most of any living film figure (and second only to Walt Disney).
Listen to audio samples of some of John Williams' best scores while clicking though this photo essay! Audio players will open in new tabs.
by CBSNews.com senior producer David Morgan (author, "Knowing the Score")
John Williams became a household name - even outside of movie buffs - with his seminal music to the 1975 Steven Spielberg thriller "Jaws." To the extent that any score can be a star of a film, this certainly was - a primal piece of writing in which driving cellos represent the incessant threat and voracious appetite of the killer shark. Even though the shark was unseen for much of the film, just hearing the music told audiences (if not the hapless characters on screen) that the threat was lurking, and getting closer ...
The son of a jazz musician, John Williams was born in 1932 and attended UCLA before entering the Air Force, where he conducted and arranged performances by the Air Force Band. He later studied at the Juilliard School in New York City, where he also worked as a jazz pianist.
Returning to Los Angeles, Williams began performing, orchestrating and composing for the film industry in the 1950s. His proficiency in both symphonic and jazz forms led to his working with such noted composers as Alfred Newman, Elmer Bernstein, Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith and Henry Mancini (on whose "Peter Gunn" TV theme he performed).
Over six decades Williams has scored more than 150 theatrical and TV films - his most famous being George Lucas' space epic "Star Wars." The 2-LP set featuring the London Symphony Orchestra became the best-selling non-pop movie soundtrack of all time, and won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and three Grammys.
In the late 1950s and '60s, Williams composed background scores and themes for many TV series, including "M Squad," "Bachelor Father," "Wagon Train," "Lost in Space" (pictured), "The Time Tunnel" and "Land of the Giants."
In the mid-1960s Williams' work for movies included light comedic compositions for such films as "How to Steal a Million"; "Penelope" with Natalie Wood; "Not With My Wife, You Don't!" with Tony Curtis and George C. Scott; and "Fitzwilly" (1967), starring Dick Van Dyke as a larcenous butler.
John Williams' talents for both melody and orchestration were clearly evident in the 1969 adaptation of William Faulkner's period novel "The Reivers," starring Steve McQueen (left, with Mitch Vogel) as a scalawag who can't help pinching a Winton Flyer automobile.
Williams' score is a joyful blend of Southern flavors, with harmonica and banjo coloring the orchestral arrangements.
If Williams' career had ended when he scored the British television adaptation of "Jane Eyre" (1971), starring Susannah York and George C. Scott, he would still be counted as one of the masters: The music's sweeping romanticism and gothic overtones are pitch-perfect.
Williams composed scores for several disaster-suspense films, the first being Irwin Allen's blockbuster "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972), in which a tidal wave capsizes an ocean liner and puts an all-star cast in a desperate race for survival.
One of Williams' most unusual and memorable scores was for Robert Altman's "Images" (1972), in which Susannah York plays a schizophrenic children's book author who just might be a murderer.
The music itself is schizophrenic - a blend of melodic string orchestra and piano, against atonal percussion played on, among other things, steel wire sculptures. The haunting, echoey tones hover in the air like a knife about to come down on a victim ...
Since traditional Westerns went out of fashion in the '70s, Williams' gift for Americana did not find much outlet in that genre, except for one notable exception: "The Cowboys" (1972), in which John Wayne plays a Montana cattle rancher forced to hire a bunch of kids to drive his herd to South Dakota. This being a movie, the kids grow into young men and wreak vengeance against the cowardly villain Bruce Dern.
The music has an Aaron Copland flavor in its rousing overture that has become a popular concert piece in itself.
When 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers found they'd each bought the rights to books about burning skyscrapers - one "The Tower," the other "The Glass Inferno" - some bright executive decided it'd make more sense to produce one BIG movie rather than two competing smaller ones. Hence, producer Irwin Allen's "The Towering Inferno," which sported a stellar cast, striking effects, and a John Williams score.
The opening of the film - a long helicopter ride above San Francisco - offers a soaring, brassy introduction before the sparks fly and the firemen are called in.
Having already won an Academy Award for adapting the stage musical "Fiddler on the Roof" for the screen in 1971, Williams won his first Oscar for original music for "Jaws." While the driving theme representing the shark was the center of the score, Williams also composed vivid music for the pursuit of the creature, reminiscent of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's 1930s scores for Errol Flynn's pirate films.
Director Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams at the composer's studio c. 1982.
Spielberg hired Williams for his first theatrical film, "The Sugarland Express" (1974), and has used Williams almost exclusively ever since. Theirs is one of the most creative director-composer relationships, and certainly the longest lasting. 2017's "The Post" is their 28th feature film collaboration.
"The Eiger Sanction"
For the Clint Eastwood mountain climber-assassin thriller "The Eiger Sanction" (1975), set in the Swiss Alps, Williams wrote an opening capturing the flavor of Zurich, while not ignoring '70s jazz inflections.
The offbeat western "The Missouri Breaks" (1976), starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, benefited from an offbeat score by John Williams - a mix of spaghetti Western-Ennio Morricone with blues, heavy on guitar and harmonica.
Williams' greatest popular success was his grand score for the sci-fi fantasy "Star Wars" (1977). It captured the epic grandeur of Old Hollywood swashbucklers with its Wagnerian motivic approach to scoring: Each character (human or otherwise) had their own musical motif that carried them through the action.
The music also communicated the dreams of the character Luke Skywalker, a farm boy who wishes for adventure far from his dusty planet.
1977 marked a watershed for Williams: In addition to "Star Wars," he also scored the Steven Spielberg science fiction film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Unlike "Star Wars," music played an important role within the film, serving as the common language between Earthlings and the visiting aliens.
Williams and Spielberg went through hundreds of variations of a musical phrase that would serve as the Rosetta Stone of language - for the characters, and for the film's underscoring - until arriving at a five-note combination; the phrase could be heard in different keys throughout.
In 2009 Williams told PBS, "There's a sort of an expectancy created by hanging that unresolved musical phrase up, and it may be one of the reasons why it's inviting. Because you want, you need to resolve it, i.e., you need to hear a bit more."
Brian De Palma's thriller "The Fury" (1978), about telekinetic youngsters with the ability to make people bleed profusely (and, in the case of one rather nasty villain, to blow up real good), relied on slow-motion to balance its shock effects, but the film's real beauty was in Williams' music - luscious, romantic, dramatic, and not at all afraid to herald bloodletting.
One of Williams' best scores was for the 1978 fantasy "Superman." Christopher Reeve capably portrayed the Man of Steel, but the sweep of the film was bolstered by Williams' epic score. The music captures the dramatic destruction of the planet Krypton, Clark Kent's adolescence in the Midwest, and his heroics in Metropolis - not to mention the romance between Superman and Lois Lane.
The ads said "You'll believe a man can fly," but the five-minute credit sequence - featuring titles swooshing through outer space and Williams' music - would have been satisfying enough. It certainly tagged Williams as the heir of Sousa: The new king of marches.
If we are to believe director John Badham, Williams had never seen a vampire movie before he scored 1979's "Dracula." Whatever - Williams' music was as rapturously passionate as Frank Langella's blood-sucking count.
The sinister "Imperial March" - representing Darth Vader and all the forces at his command in the evil Galactic Empire - was a highlight of Williams' music for the second "Star Wars" film, "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980). Could any other composer have accomplished the feat of topping the first "Star Wars" score? Nooooooo!!!
For "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), a tongue-in-cheek homage to cliffhanger serials of the 1930s and '40s, Williams provided one of his most rousing action scores that also included Amazonian, Oriental and Middle-Eastern inflections as ace archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) trotted across the globe.
Williams won his fourth Academy Award for the music of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982), a score that embraced the tender friendship between a young boy and the stranded alien he tries to protect and help get back home.
It is common practice in film recording sessions for conductors to lead the players by use of a "click track" that precisely, to the frame, dictates how long each musical passage should run, to keep the score in sync with the action on screen.
At the "E.T." recording sessions in 1982 (pictured), Williams performed the film's closing passages (which vary frequently in tempo) free from the film, and Spielberg re-edited the ending to match the musical performance - something highly unusual, and to the film's dramatic benefit.
Spielberg "enjoys music greatly," Williams said. "When he hears the orchestra play he sits and enjoys it, as though he were at a concert."
"Empire of the Sun" (1986), based on J.G. Ballard's autobiographical novel, is an under-appreciated Spielberg epic that views the Japanese invasion of China through a child's eyes. The boy's exuberance over an Allied air attack on his prisoner of war camp (pictured left, with young Christian Bale) is cause for an almost celestial rejoicing.
For Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989), starring Tom Cruise as Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, Williams' music captures youthful hope, the terrible loss of innocence, and a political awakening, as an eager young soldier becomes one of the most vocal critics of war.
For Oliver Stone's "JFK" (1991), Williams wrote a patriotic prologue that spoke to the optimism of the young John F. Kennedy's presidency, as well as the sense of loss and disillusionment brought about by his tragic murder.
Even more notable was the underscore for scenes in which New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) tries to uncover the facts behind the assassination, unraveling elements of a possible conspiracy across a swath of criminal and government forces. The heightened, relentless sense of danger builds though powerful percussion and shimmering strings.
Williams' music for Steve Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" (1993) emphasized the sheer awe of coming face-to-face with creatures that - through the miracle of DNA cloning - are recreated millions of years after their extinction. Of course, terror comes into play when dinosaurs with sharp teeth come looking for dinner.
While Spielberg and Williams have collaborated on all manner of film genres and subject matter, "Schindler's List" (1993) was their most emotionally-shattering work. Williams' music, featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman, captured the horror of the Nazis and the glimmers of humanity that those trying to survive the Holocaust hold onto in the midst of war.
George Lucas and John WIlliams returned to a galaxy far, far away with the "Star Wars" prequel, "The Phantom Menace" (1999). In addition to weaving embryonic suggestions of his Darth Vader theme into the music for young Anakin Skwalker (hints of the evil to come), Williams employed a chorus for the light saber duel between the villainous Darth Maul and the Jedi Knights, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
For the lyrics Williams had a medieval Welsh poem translated into Sanskrit - less recognizable than Latin.
Williams also laid the foundation for another fantasy franchise, creating themes for the first Harry Potter film, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001). His scores for this and the follow-ups "Chamber of Secrets" and "Prisoner of Azkaban," and his themes for the colorful characters at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, became the blueprint for scores created for later films in the series by Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper and Alexandre Desplat.
Spielberg's sprightly "Catch Me If You Can" (2002) offered a nostalgic look at '60s jet-setting glamour in the story of a con man whose many impersonations included an international airline pilot. Williams' jazz-inflected music harks back to the '60s comic larks he scored (such as "Not With My Wife, You Don't!"), but with a more sinister, rueful tone.
In addition to his film compositions, Williams has also written works for the concert stage, and has conducted orchestras across the world, including a stint as the principal conductor of the Boston Pops, succeeding Arthur Fiedler.
Left: Williams performs on stage at the Walt Disney Concert Hall opening gala, October 25, 2003 in Los Angeles, California.
Credit: Carlo Allegri/Getty Images for LAPA
"Star Wars" composer John appears onstage during the 33rd AFI Life Achievement Award tribute to George Lucas, at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., on June 9, 2005.
Credit: Vince Bucci/Getty Images
"The Adventures of Tintin"
Spielberg and Williams both explored new ground in the animated film "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn." Based on the graphic novel adventures introduced by the Belgian artist Herge in 1929, "Tintin" follows the intrepid young reporter and his dog Snowy on a fantastical adventure involving a centuries-old pirate treasure, and the nefarious characters aiming to get at it.
The music is whimsical, jaunty, tongue-in-cheek, and yet earthbound - necessary given the visual style of the animation.
Jeremy Irvine in "War Horse" (2011). Based on the Tony Award-winning play, "War Horse" follows a young Englishman whose horse is taken to the battlefields of World War I Europe. The film mixes the beauty of rural England with the horrors of a conflict in which hundreds of thousands of horses were killed on the front lines.
As anticipated, Williams' music is by turns bucolic, adventurous and mournful, centered on the bond between horse and rider that compels the young man to enlist in a quest to reunite with his horse.
"'War Horse' is the kind of musical score that is joyous, it's actually fun to record, because it's very performance-dependent," said Williams, "where we need to try to get a magic moment from the flutist that may come in one take more or less than in the other, and the string orchestra that follows it will need to create something special that you really can't synthesize with a computer or overlay with the complexities of the new technology.
"This is a lyrical film requiring a lyrical response, not only in the writing but also in the performance from the orchestra - something else Steven understands instinctively, and enjoys."
"One of my great good fortunes is working with Steven - I say that from a musician's point of view," Williams said in 2011, "and what it means to me is that he is a director who's comfortable with music, particularly orchestral music, which not all film directors are (nor should they be).
"They're all interested in capturing a kind of believable reality and if you're going to have a believable reality out in the middle of a field and you've got a symphony orchestra accompanying you, well, how can that be believable - Where did you get 90 musicians playing out there in the field?
"I've worked with many directors in the past whose styles are different, who would prefer a lean sense of realism. Steven's not that kind of moviemaker."
For Spielberg's period drama "Lincoln," about the Civil War commander-in-chief's struggle to eradicate slavery by Constitutional amendment, Williams created a score that celebrated Americana, but which was comparatively muted and modest, much like the 16th president himself.
Spielberg said he and Williams made a conscious decision not to compete with the voice of actor Daniel Day-Lewis. "So we both exercised enormous restraint -- John with his orchestration, and me with my fancy shots," the director told Lesley Stahl. "I think both of us pulled back a bit, maybe stood in Lincoln's shadow."
Spielberg and Williams on the dubbing stage with "Lincoln." The score earned the composer his 48th Academy Award nomination.
Credit: CBS News
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens"
John Williams returned to the galaxy far, far away with 2015's "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." The score featured stirring renditions of his familiar themes for the original trilogy's figures, along with moving new themes for the characters of Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and Poe and the Resistance.
For the longest "Star Wars" movie to date, 2017's "The Last Jedi," Williams composed more than three hours of music for the 2.5-hour final cut, revisiting themes from the previous films and creating new ones, including for Admiral Holdo, Rose, the Master Codebreaker, and Ahch-To Island, where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has been living in self-imposed exile.
The track "Achh-To Island" is a wonderful distillation of the aging Jedi Master's grace, despair and disillusionment, as he is trailed on his daily regimen by a hopeful young apprentice.