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John Williams Honored by Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford at AFI Gala

“That damn music follows me everywhere,” a heavily bearded Harrison Ford sighed from the Dolby Theater stage during the AFI’s Life Achievement Award presentation to John Williams on Thursday night, having just entered to the strains of the Williams-composed main theme to “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” “They play it every time I walk on the stage. Every time I walk off the stage. It was playing in the operating room when I went in for a colonoscopy.”

The evening’s other tributes were significantly less visceral, but Ford struck on the night’s common theme: the utter ubiquity of Williams’ music both inside and outside of cinemas over the past half century.

With his career having intersected with the work of so many of Hollywood’s brightest names, the dinner (to be broadcast later this month on TNT) was an appropriately starry affair. Collaborators ranging from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (both sitting flanking Williams at the table of honor) to Drew Barrymore, Tom Hanks, Kobe Bryant, J.J. Abrams, Bryce Dallas Howard and Seth MacFarlane lined up to sing his praises, while Gustavo Dudamel conducted members of the American Youth Symphony in a stirring rendition of Williams’ theme from “Schindler’s List.”

As the first film composer — and indeed, the first non-director or actor — to receive AFI’s lifetime achievement kudo in the award’s 44-year history, Williams recalled the words of Robert Graves, who when told by Queen Elizabeth II that he was the first poet to whom she’d ever conferred an official honor, whispered to her, “yes ma’am, and it’s about time you did.”

Befitting his reputation for modesty, Williams spent most of his acceptance speech praising his collaborators and predecessors, particularly Alfred Newman — whom he called “the finest conductor in Hollywood, until Gustavo (Dudamel) showed up” — and Bernard Herrmann, whom he noted would have been a worthy AFI honoree, “though he probably would have found some excuse not to come.”

The composer philosophized about film music’s place in the classical music firmament (“Beethoven would probably have shunned it, though Wagner would have had a studio up in Burbank”) and shared stories about some of his greatest work, including “writing a quite heated love theme thinking Luke and Leia were lovers” during the first “Star Wars.” Remembering his first time watching a working cut of Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” Williams recalled being so moved that he told the director he needed to find a better composer for the film. To which, he claimed, Spielberg replied, “I know, but they’re all dead.”

Spielberg himself reminisced on his 27-film, 43-year history with Williams, sharing a glimpse of Super-8 footage he shot of Williams composing the score for “E.T.” back in 1982. He described Williams’ process, writing alone on a hundred-year-old Steinway piano with a yellow legal pad on-hand, and remembered sitting in Williams’ house when he played him the iconic two-note shark theme for “Jaws.”

“When he played it for me the first time on a piano, he had a big old grin, and I thought he was joking,” Spielberg said. “He wasn’t.”

Speaking of “Star Wars,” Lucas noted it was Williams’ music that helped turn a film “meant to be a fantasy for young people” into a culture-shaking franchise, telling the composer, “You made my life so easy. I had so many ideas for other movies, but I never had to get around to them thanks to ‘Star Wars.’”

Abrams, Lucas’ successor as guardian of the “Star Wars” galaxy, related Williams’ own pet names for him, which include “Baby” and “Angel.”

“‘Oh Angel, I just hope this cue is good enough.’ These are the kinds of preposterous things that John Williams says at his own scoring sessions,” Abrams said. “It’s like he’s never read his own resume. He’s the sweetest superhero of all time.”

Barrymore drew a big laugh out of the composer with her short, ebullient speech; Will Ferrell “conducted” the five-tone theme from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” with help from Idina Menzel; and Hanks brought some improv energy after he flubbed a line, ad-libbing a few unlikely-to-be-televised remarks.

Yet some of the night’s most appreciative words came from Ford, dyspepsia and all, as he called music “the salt-and-pepper of film, the adjustment to taste at the pivotal moment.” Going back to “Raiders,” Ford introduced a clip of the film’s mournful “Marion’s Theme,” and explained how unusual it was that the theme isn’t first heard upon the character’s first appearance, but rather later on, when Indiana Jones believes her to be dead.

“This is an example of entertainment elevated to the level of art,” Ford said. “John, you’re a genius.”

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