John Williams – American Film Institute

John Williams

44th AFI Life Achievement Award Honoree

There is cinema before John Williams, and cinema after John Williams.
He is a living history of the American movie soundtrack — and of movies themselves. For his timeless and immortal contributions to the art of storytelling, the American Film Institute has selected Williams as the recipient of its 44th AFI Life Achievement Award — the first composer ever to receive this highest honor for a career in film.

“John, you breathe belief into every film we have made. You take our movies, many of them about our most impossible dreams, and through your musical genius you make them real and everlasting for billions and billions of years.” — Steven Spielberg on John Williams

The 44th AFI Life Achievement Award was presented to John Williams at a Gala Tribute on June 9, 2016 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California. Presenters and guests included J.J. Abrams, Drew Barrymore, Kobe Bryant, Chris Columbus, Gustavo Dudamel, Will Ferrell, Harrison Ford, Morgan Freeman, Mark Hamill, Tom Hanks, Bryce Dallas Howard, Cloris Leachman, George Lucas, Seth MacFarlane, Steve Martin, Idina Menzel, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Itzhak Perlman, Simone Porter, Daisy Ridley and Steven Spielberg. The television special aired on TNT on June 15, 2016.

There is cinema before John Williams, and cinema after John Williams.

He is a living history of the American movie soundtrack — and of movies themselves. For his timeless and immortal contributions to the art of storytelling, the American Film Institute has selected Williams as the recipient of its 44th AFI Life Achievement Award — the first composer ever to receive this highest honor for a career in film.

Williams’ iconic works make us believe in the fantastic, the terrifying, the magical — that a monstrous leviathan awaits us in the deep; that we are not alone in the universe; that a man can fly; that a boy on his bicycle can soar across the moon; that dinosaurs roam the earth; that the triumphs and tragedies of human history are alive; and that we are all bound together by an inscrutable, mystical Force.

Behind this enormous filmography of towering achievement is a humble artist content to live outside the limelight and let his wondrous work speak for itself. “I live a very quiet life,” Williams said. “A composer’s life is similar to a monk’s, from the point of view of solitude.”

Williams was born in New York on February 8, 1932. He grew up surrounded by music. His father was a jazz drummer and symphonic percussionist, and his brothers are still percussionists today. As a child, “Johnny” shadowed his father in CBS Radio recording sessions, where he recalls falling in love with “the first sounds I heard of the orchestra, the deafening noises of the brasses, the color of the sound — it was the single biggest turn-on.”

He pursued his passion, trying a number of instruments before finally choosing the piano. After moving with his family to California, he was studying music at UCLA by 1950. He soon was drafted into the Korean War, and during that time conducted and arranged music for U.S. Air Force bands, penning his first film score for a short travel documentary commissioned by the Canadian government.

After the war, he returned to New York where he studied piano at the Juilliard School with the renowned Rosina Lhévinne, and where he also played in the city’s jazz clubs and commercial recording studios. But cinema eventually called him back to Los Angeles, where he settled into a vacant pianist chair in the Columbia Pictures orchestra. To look back on the early years of his career is to take a musical walk through classic Hollywood cinema. He played piano on scores for SOUTH PACIFIC (1958), SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), THE APARTMENT (1960), WEST SIDE STORY (1961) and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), to name just a few of his early achievements.

By the late 1960s, he had become “John Williams,” the mature composer, writing scores for VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) and THE REIVERS (1969). He won his first Academy Award® for adapting FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971) to the screen before establishing himself as a “master of disaster” of film scores, starting with the box office hit THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) and continuing with EARTHQUAKE (1974) and THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974).

As diverse as his filmography have been his collaborators, including J.J. Abrams, Irwin Allen, Robert Altman, Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, Brian De Palma, Clint Eastwood, Alfred Hitchcock, Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas, Delbert Mann, George Miller, Oliver Stone and William Wyler. But in Steven Spielberg, Williams found his most prolific artistic partner.

It was 1972, and unlike the rising school of Hollywood filmmakers for whom the movie orchestra was out of vogue, Spielberg wanted a classical style for his theatrical debut, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974).

“For many years there was a drought. The great old composers like Dimitri Tiomkin and Max Steiner were no longer writing. There was a real loss of pure symphonic film music. When I heard THE REIVERS and THE COWBOYS (1972), I said, ‘My God, this guy must be 80 years old!'” Spielberg said, thinking that Williams embodied the musical spirit of the Hollywood Golden Age.

“He seemed to know more about my music than I did,” Williams said of their first meeting, where he took an instant liking to this boyish rookie. Thus began the most enduring collaboration in American film history — what Williams has described as “more like a marriage than a working relationship.”

Then came JAWS (1975).

It was a game-changer for Williams and the movies. Because the film’s mechanical shark often malfunctioned during production, Spielberg wanted to keep it mostly off-screen. So it was up to the music to carry the thriller’s sense of approaching doom. While initially reluctant to embrace the now-famous two-note phrase created by Williams, Spielberg said that the score for JAWS was “clearly responsible for half the success of that movie.” Williams won his second Oscar® for the film, his first for Best Original Dramatic Score.

If JAWS was a success for its simple two-note motif, then Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) can be defined by five notes, electronically produced, and combined with Williams’ signature classical grandeur to signal the benevolent arrival of alien life on our planet. Spielberg marveled at Williams’ feat — “to have aliens and humans communicating by what reaches us quicker than anything else, which is the passion of music.”

From an alien visitation on Earth to a galaxy far, far away, Williams’ career reached a new zenith with STAR WARS: EPISODE IV — A NEW HOPE (1977), a cinematic collage of Westerns, samurai movies, swashbucklers, fairy tales and FLASH GORDON serials. Just as director George Lucas synthesized all these elements to create a dazzling space opera, Williams conjured an operatic soundscape whose first notes thunderously ushered audiences into the film’s opening frames, a panorama of stars shimmering against the blackness of space.

Williams’ music helped to drive STAR WARS, one of the biggest blockbuster franchises of all time, to become an unmatched cultural phenomenon, spawning sequels and prequels — and topping AFI’s list of the greatest American film scores of all time. “Every fan of STAR WARS — and of great music — is in his debt,” said Lucas of the composer.

Williams achieved another milestone with SUPERMAN (1978): he gave flight to a superhero lifted from the pages of a comic book. Not only did Williams elevate the title character — he resurrected the comic book as an art form, and as a film genre with a massive global audience to this day. Director Richard Donner said he was “thunderstruck” when he first heard Williams’ main theme for the opening titles. “When the word ‘Superman’ came up on the screen, he orchestrated the word,” Donner said. “If you listen, the music literally says SU-PER-MAN. He’s a genius.”

In 1980, a new opportunity arose when the Boston Pops Orchestra sought a successor to incomparable conductor Arthur Fiedler. Despite having led only a few concerts previously, Williams felt, “I had nothing to lose, and I could gain the joy of experiencing a live audience.” In his 14 seasons in Boston, and through the nationally televised PBS series EVENING AT POPS, Williams helped bring film music as a vital American art form from the big screen to the concert hall. While conducting the Pops and scoring films, he took another gigantic leap with his official theme for the 1984 Summer Olympics, going beyond the screen to compose music for the most significant competition in human history, dating back to ancient Greece.

Among his many notable film scores during his tenure at the Pops, which lasted until 1993, was RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981). Williams brought to life one of cinema’s greatest heroes for this 1930s serial– inspired adventure, creating a score that remains rousing, raucous and romantic — a musical sidekick for Indiana Jones that immortalized the character in movie history.

Williams and Spielberg summoned childlike wonder and fairy-tale awe for E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), a movie that soared into the hearts and imaginations of movie-goers the world over. Spielberg gave Williams unusual creative breadth by re-editing the final sequence of the film to fit the rapturous music, lifting Elliott, E.T. and audiences up into the night sky and off into the stars.

In 1993, in a testament to Williams’ immeasurable range, he composed music for both SCHINDLER’S LIST and JURASSIC PARK. A historic elegy for lives lost in the Holocaust, SCHINDLER’S LIST presented Williams with a daunting challenge. It was the first time he hesitated to score a Spielberg film. “Nothing could be good enough for a story like this,” he told Spielberg. “You need a better composer than I am for this film.” Spielberg replied, “I know, but they’re all dead,” nonetheless confident that his friend stood alongside history’s greatest composers. Their reverence for the material allowed Williams to create a singular musical achievement that lives outside the cinematic masterpiece. Even today, music from the score is performed in concert halls worldwide.

Spielberg has called his friend “this nation’s greatest composer. He has given movies a musical language that can be understood in every country on this planet.” His triumphs, charting human history and imagination, are too many to count: EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987), BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989), HOME ALONE (1990), JFK (1991), FAR AND AWAY (1992), SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET (1997), SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), three HARRY POTTER films (2001–2004), CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002), LINCOLN (2012), THE BFG (2016) and so many more. In addition to his five Academy Awards®, Williams has received the Olympic Order (2003), the Kennedy Center Honor (2004) and the National Medal of Arts (2009). This year, Williams received his 50th Oscar® nomination — more than any living person, and second only to Walt Disney in the history of the Academy — for STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015).

Aside from his achievements in film music, Williams has composed numerous works for the concert stage, among them two symphonies, as well as concertos for cello, flute, violin, clarinet, viola, harp, oboe and tuba. He has received commissions from some of the world’s leading symphony orchestras, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic. A longtime supporter of American orchestras, Williams also has conducted dozens of concerts with orchestras nationwide, often hosted by Spielberg, in support of their musicians’ pension funds. An eloquent spokesman for the importance of education, and in particular music education, Williams himself holds honorary degrees from 21 American universities.

And still, he works nearly seven days a week, writing notes by hand and arranging them on a nearly 100-year-old Steinway grand piano — as he always has. With his trusty stopwatch, he sets sound to image, and continues to redefine how we all see and hear the movies. “It isn’t my personality to be particularly proud of what I do,” Williams said, in the gently demurring manner that belies the scope and scale of his vast body of work. “So much of what we do is ephemeral and quickly forgotten, even by ourselves. It’s gratifying to have something you have done linger in people’s memories.”

The American Film Institute is proud to honor John Williams with the AFI Life Achievement Award, for his storytelling genius forever lives in our collective movie memories.




The AFI Life Achievement Award — the highest honor for a career in film — was established by the AFI Board of Trustees on February 23, 1973 to celebrate an individual whose career in motion pictures or television has greatly contributed to the enrichment of American culture.

The award is given to a “recipient whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.”

In 1993, the AFI Board of Trustees extended the criteria to encompass individuals with active careers and work of significance yet to be accomplished.