One of the pillars of film scoring and the most popular film composer of his era, John Williams has created music for some of the most successful motion pictures in Hollywood history -- Star Wars, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, and Harry Potter are just a handful of selections from an extensive catalog that has included over 50 Academy Awards nominations. After getting his start in television in the late '50s, Williams worked more steadily on feature films by the early '70s, impressing with his stirring orchestral scores for blockbuster disaster films like The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974), and The Towering Inferno (1974), as well as through his work with such emerging directors as Robert Altman (1973's The Long Goodbye) and Steven Spielberg (1974's The Sugarland Express). His recurring partnership with Spielberg would span six decades. Williams' ominous, encroaching "Shark Theme" for Spielberg's Jaws in 1975 and his five-note spacecraft melody from 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (penned with Spielberg's note that it should convey "hello" in mind) would have likely cemented his stature as the go-to Hollywood composer for sci-fi-adventure-thriller fare even without the colossal success of 1977's Star Wars, his most iconic score. His instrumental themes from Jaws, Close Encounters, and Star Wars all charted on the Billboard Hot 100, with Star Wars' cracking the Top Ten. Over time, he was recognized for his prowess with more poignant material as well, such as Best Song Oscar nominee "Somewhere in My Memory" from Home Alone and his mournful violin theme (performed by Itzhak Perlman) from his Oscar-winning score for Schindler's List (1993). However, he has remained associated across generations for his lush, exciting, romantic music for other worlds, including the first two Jurassic Park films in the '90s, the first three Harry Potter films in the 2000s, and the episodic Star Wars prequels and sequels. In the early 2020s, as he entered his nineties, Williams set to work on his fifth straight entry in the Indiana Jones film franchise. While not quite as prolific in the concert hall realm, he has composed concertos for no fewer than ten different instruments, among dozens of other orchestral and chamber works.
Born February 8, 1932, in Floral Park, New York, Williams was the son of a movie studio musician, and he followed in his father's footsteps by studying music at UCLA and Juilliard. Initially, he pursued a career as a jazz pianist, later working with Henry Mancini to compose the score for the hit television series Peter Gunn. Williams then went solo to pen a number of TV soundtracks for series including Playhouse 90, Wagon Train, and Bachelor Father. In 1959, he ventured into film with Daddy-O, and spent the majority of the 1960s alternating between the silver screen (The Killers, The Plainsman) and its smaller counterpart (Gilligan's Island, Lost in Space, Kraft Suspense Theatre).
In 1968, Williams earned his first Academy Award nomination for his work on Valley of the Dolls. In 1970, he garnered nods for both The Reivers and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and two years later finally won for Fiddler on the Roof. A slew of Oscar nominations followed, for features including The Poseidon Adventure, Tom Sawyer, and The Towering Inferno. By 1974, he had received his first nomination for best original song, for Cinderella Liberty's "Nice to Be Around," a collaboration with Paul Williams (lyrics).
Over much of his career, two major relationships helped secure Williams' iconic legacy in film and music. In 1974, he teamed with a young filmmaker named Steven Spielberg for the first time on a crime drama titled The Sugarland Express. Over the coming decades, the two frequently re-teamed, often with stunning results, including 1975's Jaws and 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. His thrilling score for Jaws won an Oscar for original score; Close Encounters was nominated. Williams' other frequent collaborator was George Lucas, beginning with 1977's Star Wars -- another best score Oscar winner. Star Wars' rousing, orchestral opening theme even went to number ten on the Billboard singles chart. He and Lucas soon reunited for 1980's The Empire Strikes Back, the same year Williams took over for the late Arthur Fiedler as the conductor of the Boston Pops.
Back with Spielberg, Williams delivered more of his memorably triumphant melodies for 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark and the next year's E.T. His soaring music for the latter resulted his fourth Academy Award trophy. He was back atop the box office rankings with 1983's Return of the Jedi, the third Star Wars feature. In the meantime, he composed for other filmmakers, turning out scores for films like 1978's Superman and 1983's Yes, Giorgio, which included another Oscar-nominated song ("If We Were in Love"). Among his vast output later in the '80s were contrasting Oscar-nominated scores for Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), the World War II drama Empire of the Sun (1987), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).
The '90s saw Williams work on franchises old and new, beginning with the inaugural Home Alone family comedy in 1990. It resulted in nominations for both score and song ("Somewhere in My Memory, with lyricist Leslie Bricusse). Following a score nomination for Oliver Stone's JFK and a song nod (again with Bricusse) for "When You're Alone" from Spielberg's Hook, he won an Oscar for his next Spielberg collaboration, 1993's Schindler's List, whose haunting theme was performed by violinist Itzhak Perlman. That year also saw the first Jurassic Park film hit theaters featuring a ubiquitous Williams score, as he passed the Boston Pops baton to Keith Lockhart following a 13-year stay. The composer agreed to score George Lucas' Star Wars prequel trilogy as they went into production just before the release of his Oscar-nominated scores for the Spielberg historical dramas Amistad (1997) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace broke the single-day box office record on its opening day in May of 1999.
Williams began work on yet another blockbuster franchise in 2001 with the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (aka Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone). Mixing winding, aerial melodies with a darkly majestic palette, Williams' initial contribution to that magical universe was nominated for best original score. He followed that with a string of consecutive hits: Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), Spielberg's Minority Report (2002), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can (2002), and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2003). The composer of multiple Olympic themes, he received the Olympic Order award from the International Olympic Committee in 2003. Films including Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Spielberg's War of the Worlds and Munich followed in 2005, with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull arriving before the end of the decade. Williams was awarded the National Medal of Arts at the White House in 2009.
Regular appearances on the Oscar nominee list continued in the 2010s, with Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin (2011), War Horse (2012), and Lincoln (2013) among them. He received three more Oscar nominations for the Star Wars sequel trilogy, beginning with 2015's The Force Awakens. In 2016, Williams became the first composer to receive the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. He finished the decade with movies including the Spielberg projects The BFG (2016) and The Post (2017). In 2017, their partnership was anthologized with John Williams & Steven Spielberg: The Ultimate Collection. Two years later, he also collaborated with celebrated violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter on the album Across the Stars, which featured Mutter playing a selection of Williams' film themes; the composer both arranged the music and conducted the Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles for the Deutsche Grammophon release. The ninth episode of the Star Wars saga, The Rise of Skywalker, saw release in 2019. 2022's A Gathering of Friends saw Williams working with cellist Yo-Yo Ma on a set of two concert works, as well as selections from his scores for Schindler’s List, Lincoln, and Munich.
During their first 50 years of working together, John Williams scored all but five of Steven Spielberg's films (1983's Twilight Zone: The Movie, 1985's The Color Purple, 2015's Bridge of Spies, 2018's Ready Player One, and 2021's West Side Story). In 2023, Williams returned to the Indiana Jones film series with his score for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.