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AFI Honoree John Williams Looks Back on Six Decades of Iconic Themes

“Star Wars.” “E.T.” “Jaws.” “Indiana Jones.” “Superman.” “Harry Potter.”

Admit it: You can’t think of any one of those films without hearing the score in your head.

John Williams, who wrote all those classic themes [and dozens more] will receive the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award on June 9 from frequent collaborator Steven Spielberg. It will be the first such honor given to a composer in the 44-year history of the award.

“This man’s gifts echo, quite literally, through all of us, around the world and across generations,” says AFI president-CEO Bob Gazzale. “There’s not one person who hasn’t heard this man’s work, who hasn’t felt alive because of it. That’s the ultimate impact of an artist.”

Over six decades in Hollywood, Williams has written some of the most memorable music in movie history. His 100-plus features have earned 50 Academy Award nominations [making him the most-nominated living person] and he’s won five times.

He’s also received 22 Grammys, seven BAFTAs, five Emmys, four Golden Globes, a Kennedy Center Honor and the National Medal of Arts. And then there are all those iconic themes, the ones everyone in the world knows.

Asked about the global fame of those melodies, Williams responds: “It feels a little bit abstract. It’s wonderful when I am told that, but it’s hard to fathom what that really means.” He spoke with Variety via phone from Tanglewood, Mass., where he was relaxing between mid-May conducting engagements with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“In the initial stage of writing any of these things, one never imagines that they will be popular or even be around a week after they’re done,” he says. “Everything was written in the service of some film function. That’s as far as my creative thinking would have gone. You never write a theme for a movie thinking, ‘this will live forever.’”

Yet many of them have, in part because of the popularity of the films but also because of the careful craftsmanship that has gone into their creation, says producer and longtime Williams collaborator Kathleen Kennedy [“E.T.,” “Lincoln”] via phone from Ireland, where she is shooting “Star Wars: Episode VIII.”

“Johnny’s so much about the work all the time. That’s what he loves,” she says. “So when somebody steps out and highlights the celebrity of it, it does make him uncomfortable. That is so far removed from anything that motivates him. And they’re all so specific — they’re not derivative of one another. Each and every score that he does is unique.”

She’s right. Compare the downhome Americana of “The Reivers” to the Japanese colors of “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Or the heartbreaking “Schindler’s List” with the avant-garde piano and percussion of “Images.” The five-note alien greeting of “Close Encounters” with the diabolical scherzi of “The Witches of Eastwick.” The joyful carols of “Home Alone” with the bittersweet Irish flavors of “Angela’s Ashes.” The surprising delicacy and awe of “Jurassic Park” with the jazzy ’60s vibe of “Catch Me if You Can.”

Williams calls himself “a dinosaur in many respects,” in part because he still composes using pencil and score paper, unlike younger colleagues who use computer software and keyboards to write and create demos for their directors to hear. Williams does neither, and those lucky enough to work with him don’t care.

In fact, Williams, 84, is the last of a generation of American composers that spans an earlier era of moviemaking and modern times. He has worked with William Wyler [“How to Steal a Million”], Alfred Hitchcock [“Family Plot”], Robert Altman [“The Long Goodbye”], Frank Sinatra [“None But the Brave”], Gene Kelly [“A Guide for the Married Man”], Mark Rydell [“The Cowboys”], Arthur Penn [“The Missouri Breaks”], Irwin Allen [“The Poseidon Adventure”], Clint Eastwood [“The Eiger Sanction”], John Frankenheimer [“Black Sunday”], Oliver Stone [“JFK”] and Sydney Pollack [“Sabrina”].

His fans reach far beyond Hollywood. Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan-born music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, says he has admired Williams all his life. “As a kid, I was just crazy about movies and in love with all his music,” Dudamel says. “Film composers are great musicians, great orchestrators, and for me, John is simply one of the greatest of our time. He is also a wonderful man and a wonderful friend.”

Williams, who says he has no thought of retiring [“Steven expects me to work until I’m 100”], still spends every day writing music, whether for film or the concert hall. After a heavy schedule over the past 14 months, writing three hours of music for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and another two for Spielberg’s “The BFG,”

“I could use a little break,” he says.

He plans to begin work on Spielberg’s next film, “Ready Player One,” in November, and then next year expects to do the next “Star Wars” film. “If I can do it, I certainly will. I told Kathy Kennedy I’m happy to do it, but the real reason is, I didn’t want anybody else writing music for Daisy Ridley,” he quips.

Williams may also compose a concert work [“for one of my favorite European artists,” whom he declined to name] this summer. Concert work has increasingly occupied him between films, including concertos for cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Gil Shaham and others. He is also committed to writing “a couple of minutes of music” for an animated version of retiring L.A. Laker great Kobe Bryant’s poem “Dear Basketball.”

Despite his fame, Williams remains essentially a shy and private man with the soul of an artist. “He’s the most warm, accessible, down-to-earth, wonderful human being, and yet he is incredibly famous,” Kennedy says. “Those two things don’t always go together.”


Career Highlights

1956: Plays piano on studio recording sessions at Fox, and later Paramount, Columbia, Universal.

1958: Signs with Revue Studios to write music for TV. First screen credit: “M Squad,” the Lee Marvin cop show. Earns first Grammy nomination for “Checkmate,” first Emmy nom for “Alcoa Premiere.”

1962: First film for 20th Century Fox, comedy “Bachelor Flat.” First of many Fox projects including Irwin Allen TV series (“Lost in Space”) and movies (“The Towering Inferno”).

1973: Meets Steven Spielberg, who asks him to score his first feature, “The Sugarland Express.”

1975: Scores Spielberg’s second movie, “Jaws,” winning an Oscar and spurring a resurgence of interest in traditional orchestral scores (after a decade of pop/rock scores for films like “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider”).

1976: Spielberg introduces Williams to his friend George Lucas, who was looking for someone to create a classic-sounding symphonic score for “Star Wars.” Another Oscar follows.

1980: Succeeds Arthur Fiedler as music director of the Boston Pops. Reduces film work, but his new public visibility (especially on PBS’ “Evening at Pops”) makes him an in-demand public conductor.

1984: Composes “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” for the Summer Olympics in L.A., first and best-known of four that he would eventually write (later ones came in 1988, 1996, and 2002).

1993: Scores “Schindler’s List” with violinist Itzhak Perlman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Powerful, heartfelt score wins him a fifth Academy Award.

2001: Launches the “Harry Potter” film series with a magical, multi-thematic score. “Hedwig’s Theme,” played on celeste for the young wizard’s snowy owl, becomes the franchise’s signature theme.

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