"For the first film I wrote a quite heated love theme, with a melody … and a torrid climax, thinking that Luke and Leia were lovers," Williams said, during a witty and self-effacing speech from the stage at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. "I found out two years later that they were brother and sister."
Despite the minor mixup, Williams managed to create the most indelible film music of a generation, a theme that recurred, like a superhero's fanfare, in speeches throughout the evening.
The AFI Achievement Award Gala will be broadcast on
Music was, rightly, front and center, as
Williams, 84, is the first composer to receive the honor in AFI's 44 years of giving it, and he was quick to point out predecessors who had been deserving, such as Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann.
'I am enormously grateful to film for giving [composers] the broadest possible audience worldwide that any composer has ever enjoyed," Williams said. "Certainly Beethoven would have shunned [Hollywood], but Wagner would have had his own studio out there in Burbank with a water tower with a big W on it."
Williams, who was born in Queens, N.Y., and began his career as a jazz pianist, is still working, with a score for Spielberg's "The BFG" out this summer, and music due on the 2017 "Star Wars" film.
"JJ, baby, dare we reference the Force theme here?" Abrams said, imitating Williams' affectionate, jazzy speaking style.
To illustrate how Williams' music elevates his films, Spielberg played the scene from "E.T." where Elliot bicycles into the sky as it sounded without the soaring score -- the only audio some dialogue and a trundling dolly.
"Without John Williams, bikes don't really fly," Spielberg said. "John, you breathe belief into every film."
The director also described the first time he heard Williams' unforgettable "Jaws" theme at the composer's piano. "I thought he was joking, and he wasn't," Spielberg said.
MacFarlane, who performed with the composer at the Hollywood Bowl, described Williams' low-tech style as a dying art in Hollywood, for his reliance on real orchestras and musicianship over electronically assembled players.
"Film music in Hollywood today is endangered," MacFarlane said.
Bryant shared how he relied on Williams scores as his own hype music, playing the Imperial March from "Star Wars" to psyche himself up before games.
Over the course of the evening, many speakers mentioned the enduring nature of Williams' scores.
"I had so many ideas for other movies, but I never got to them because you ensured 'Star Wars' would go on forever," Lucas said.
In talking about the "Indiana Jones" theme that played as he took the stage, Harrison Ford was more direct. "That damn music follows me everywhere," Ford said. "It was playing in the operating room when I went in for a colonoscopy."
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'AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to John Williams'
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday