By now, every movie fan knows that John Williams was named the 44th recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award on Thursday, October 8. (I’m still celebrating it!) And most fans know the outstanding scores he wrote for such seminal classics as STAR WARS, JAWS, SUPERMAN, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, HOME ALONE, the INDIANA JONES movies, as well as the first three HARRY POTTER films. But John Williams has been a major force in Hollywood for 60 years now and there are some fascinating facts about the brilliant composer that most fans are unaware of. Here are 10 that make his legend even more significant.
He was Johnny Williams when he first started in Hollywood
When John Towner Williams first came to Tinsel Town as an orchestrator and studio musician, he went by the moniker “Johnny Williams.” He was a big-time jazz pianist and the more casual name suited the genre. He may have been classically trained at Julliard and the Eastman School, but when he was first in the biz he went by a name far jazzier.
He played the opening riff for the PETER GUNN theme
Speaking of jazz, that’s Williams playing those famous opening bars for Henry Mancini’s composition for the Blake Edward TV series PETER GUNN (1958-1960). Williams did a lot of studio work then, playing his expert piano for other famed Hollywood composers like Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein. Soon he would be their contemporary, but in his early Tinsel Town years, he was a sought after (ahem) “Gunn for hire.”
Williams wrote a number of TV theme songs
Did you know that Williams composed the underscore for the pilot episode of GILLIAN’S ISLAND? Even more importantly, Williams penned theme songs for 1960’s adventure series like TIME TUNNEL, LAND OF THE GIANTS and LOST IN SPACE. In fact, Williams wrote two theme songs for the show about the Robinson family. The first year’s theme was deemed too dark by CBS so Williams wrote a more upbeat second version. That sufficed for the show’s final two seasons.
Williams scored a lot of disaster films
Continuing his collaboration with Irwin Allen, the producer of LOST IN SPACE, TIME TUNNEL and LAND OF THE GIANTS, Williams scored three seminal disaster films for him in the 1970s. He scored THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, EARTHQUAKE and THE TOWERING INFERNO and received Oscar nominations for the first two. Before he was Steven Spielberg’s favorite composer, he was Allen’s.
His first Oscar was for adapting Broadway
Sure, he was Oscar-nominated for his scores for VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) and GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (1969), but it was his adaptation of the Broadway hit FIDDLER ON THE ROOF in 1971 that got him his first statue. Since then, Williams has gone on to win four other Oscars, along with 49 nominations in total. That’s an individual total second only to Walt Disney (56 nominations, 26 actual wins).
His CLOSE ENCOUNTERS theme was penned before filming
Spielberg needed Williams’ musical sequence for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND before filming as it would play such a large part in the filmed narrative. Hence, Williams wrote his simple but sublime five-note theme months before he wrote the rest of his score for the film.
He succeeded Arthur Fiedler as conductor of the Boston Pops
Fiedler was a legend, directing the most popular orchestra on the planet, and when he stepped down after almost 50 years as the conductor, the Pops knew they needed another big name. They turned to John Williams in1980, an artist at the peak of his fame. He accepted and raised the Pops baton for 13 years.
NBC loves him
Not only has Williams written the theme for the NBC NIGHTLY NEWS, but he also wrote the “Olympic Fanfare” for NBC and the theme for NBC’S MEET THE PRESS.
His favorite score is a “close” call
Of all of his scores he wrote, his favorite is CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Williams described it as “…more than just Cellophane going through a projecting machine, it had a kind of life.” The AFI picked “Star Wars” but Williams liked another sci-fi theme better.
Williams is the only below-the-line AF Lifetime recipient
Up until last week, the AFI had never awarded any talent who wasn’t a director, producer or actor. No screenwriter (unless they were also a director), no costume designer, no cinematographer, and no composer. Thus, the choice of Williams is significant on a number of levels. As the criteria for the award, he is an artist who truly changed movies and whose work has stood the test of time. He’s also been a household name for five decades, so it’s long overdue. Still, with this huge, career-capping accolade, the AFI has finally evened the score.