A Career of Epic Proportions


J ohn Williams is a busy man. Almost too busy to notice his birthday.

On Friday, the composer of “Star Wars” and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” turns 70. He will not be commemorating the occasion with, say, a quiet dinner for family and friends. Instead, he’ll be celebrating at a slightly bigger party: conducting the Utah Symphony and the 350-voice Mormon Tabernacle in his new Olympic theme, “Call of the Champions,” at the opening ceremonies in Salt Lake City before a worldwide television audience of, oh, a billion or so.

Just a week ago, he finished recording 110 minutes of music in London for “Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones” (due May 16). On Saturday, he will again conduct his Olympic music, and other pieces, in the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. In three weeks, he’ll lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a special birthday concert, with Yo-Yo Ma performing his Cello Concerto. A few days before that, Sony Classical will release a new CD of that work and several more performed by Ma.

“Turning 70 doesn’t feel any different than 40,” Williams says. His neatly trimmed beard is snow white now, as is most of his wispy hair. “My schedule now is probably not any heavier than it’s been for the last 10 or 15 years,” he adds. “Most of these commitments are fairly long-standing, so I’m kind of in the rhythm of doing these things.”


And doing them pretty well. Four of the top five money-making films of all time, six of the top 10 and eight of the top 15 have music by John Williams. With five Oscars (plus 34 nominations), four Emmys and 18 Grammys, he’s the most honored film composer currently working in Hollywood. He is also the highest paid, with fees reportedly exceeding $1 million a picture and the bonus of profit participation on some, meaning extra money if the film is a hit.

Which is a strong possibility. Besides the “Star Wars” movies and “E.T.,” think “Jurassic Park,” “Home Alone,” all three Indiana Jones movies, “Saving Private Ryan” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Think “Jaws.”

Without its ominous shark theme, says the film’s director, Steven Spielberg, “‘Jaws’ would have been half as successful.”

Spielberg, who has worked with Williams on 17 films, describes himself as “more awestruck by John today than I was when I first met him.” That was back in 1973, on his first feature, “The Sugarland Express.”

“I’ve often made a fool of myself, hanging over his piano weeping after he’s played me something,” says the director, referring to the music for “E.T.” and “Schindler’s List.”

Then there is Williams’ career outside of Hollywood--as a conductor, including 14 years at the helm of the Boston Pops, and as a composer of serious music. He has written several concertos, a song cycle, two symphonies, and assorted celebratory works, such as his four Olympic themes. Despite some mixed reviews, the commissions and conducting invitations continue to multiply.


His friend Andre Previn, a composer who had his own bumpy trajectory from the film business to the concert hall, just wishes he’d concentrate more:

“I keep telling him, ‘For God’s sake, stop writing for those cornball movies and go be a composer.’

“John is much too good a musician to stay satisfied with that forever,” Previn continues. “I hate to see him spend so much time doing, you know, ‘Home Alone’ or whatever. It’s so beneath him. But it’s a pointless argument, because he likes doing it, and he does it very well.”

Williams’ writing space looks exactly like a composer’s study should. Dozens of pages of musical sketches, neatly notated in pencil, are scattered across the lids of two baby grand pianos with a pair of drafting boards strategically placed around one bench.

Ceiling-high bookcases on both sides of the room are jammed with music books--biographies of the great composers, histories, orchestration texts--and seemingly endless rows of leather-bound scores. A portrait of George Gershwin, together with a canceled check signed by the great American songwriter, is framed on one wall. Williams has been writing music here since 1970, in a corner of the Westwood home he shares with his wife, Samantha, of 21 years. (He has three grown children by a previous marriage and five grandchildren.)

It’s the night before he is to leave for Boston, en route to his London “Star Wars” recording dates; he still has to finish composing the closing-credit music for “Attack of the Clones” and pack for the trip. But the soft-spoken Williams shows no signs of strain, segueing into philosophical asides and peppering his conversation with references to T.S. Eliot, John Kenneth Galbraith and Virgil Thomson.


On the question of the concert hall versus the movie theater, he’s conciliatory. “The gulf that’s existed between the Hollywood music community and our fine arts community has been deeper than any of us would have liked,” he says. But attitudes are changing, he believes, and film composers are now more welcome in the concert hall than they were 20 years ago.

Concert music, however, is not about to become his priority.

“Although I enjoy working in the concert field enormously, I do feel that it is in the area of film music that I can perhaps be most contributive,” he says mildly.

Besides, he just can’t say no to certain projects. He loved the book “Angela’s Ashes,” so he wanted to score the movie. He liked the early-American period of “The Patriot,” hence the desire to write music for the Mel Gibson action film. He became enamored of J.K. Rowling’s books and so was pleased to set “Harry Potter” to music. Decisions about which film to accept, he says, are made “on a case-by-case basis.”

He is proud of most of the work that has made him a household name. “It’s wonderfully gratifying to think that I can go into a concert and play ‘Indiana Jones’ or ‘Superman’ or even ‘Schindler’s List’ to people, and they’ll know the music completely. It’s flattering and rewarding on the deepest level. And it speaks to the power of film to bring music to an audience larger than any ever imagined in the previous history of music.”

Williams speaks of “the challenges of concert music, the opportunities of having great artists performing for a discerning and sophisticated public.” He adds with a smile that “there’s a wonderful sense of freedom in writing concert music which isn’t there when we look at a cue sheet [for a film] and know that we have to be off the stage in three minutes and 10 seconds.”

Critics describe his concert works as mostly accessible, more modern in idiom than the familiar romanticism of much of his film music, and sometimes drawn on models ranging from Elgar to Stravinsky. The New York Times found his bassoon concerto “slightly less derivative than his film scores ... a comfortably familiar stew,” while the Boston Globe praised his song cycle “Seven for Luck,” based on the poems of Rita Dove, for its “flexible rhythms, pungent harmonies and bold gestures.”


“When you start to write for film, you have a lot of help,” he explains. “You have a script, actors, an ambience, a texture, a time and place. But when you write a purely abstract piece, you start out with a lot less. You have to create that yourself, either through a programmatic suggestion or through some other sense of design. Some composers think about nature, some look at paintings--rarely is music created in a complete vacuum. It’s challenging at a different level than film music.”

But, he insists, film work is no less creatively satisfying. “Every time I look at a picture that’s a new assignment, it’s daunting. It never seems easy. I think, ‘Can I do this well?’ I don’t think anyone [who composes for film] ever gets blase because we’re basically too insecure for that. It’s like running a race for an athlete; every single time is the toughest. It’s still that way.”

Spielberg says he has been able to return to Williams over and over for 30 years because of the composer’s versatility. “John can change his style based on his impressions of the movie that he’s about to write,” he says, citing the melancholy of “Schindler’s List” and the sophistication of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

“Many people--I was one of them--misjudged him as a composer,” Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Seiji Ozawa says on the phone from Paris. The two first met when Williams arrived in 1980 to take charge of the Boston Pops. “But I found out when I studied his pieces. His knowledge and background and training, how he does his music [demonstrates] a very high standard and deep musicianship.”

Born in New York, the son of Johnny Williams, a jazz drummer, Williams moved to L.A. with his family in 1948, studying at Los Angeles City College, UCLA and, back in New York, at Juilliard. He began his career in 1955 as a studio pianist for conductors such as Alfred Newman at 20th Century Fox and Morris Stoloff at Columbia. (The “Johnny T. Williams” playing the jazz solos on Henry Mancini’s original 1958 “Peter Gunn” album is the future film composer.)

“I began to be a little bit dissatisfied with the role of an orchestra pianist,” Williams recalls. He shifted first to orchestration, for such composers as Adolph Deutsch (“The Apartment”) and Dimitri Tiomkin (“The Guns of Navarone”). He also arranged albums for artists such as Frankie Laine and Mahalia Jackson. Then Revue Studios (later Universal Television) placed Williams under contract as a composer.


“It was a slow evolution from the piano bench to the podium,” he says.

Churning out weekly scores for hourlong dramas such as “Checkmate,” “Alcoa Premiere” and “Kraft Suspense Theater,” he learned the basics of crafting music for film. “Every week was a different kind of challenge: a comedy, a western, a war film, a love story, whatever. It was a great training ground,” he says. He learned to write music, often as much as 20 minutes a week, on demand, and to conduct the studio musicians.

By the mid-1960s, he was getting regular feature film assignments. His first Oscar nomination was for adapting Andre and Dory Previn’s song score to the infamous 1967 “Valley of the Dolls”; his first Oscar win was for the 1971 adaptation of music for the film version of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

A growing reputation as a disaster-film specialist (with scores for “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Earthquake” and “The Towering Inferno”), along with a clear facility for musical Americana ( scores for “The Reivers” and “The Cowboys”) prompted Spielberg’s first call--made Williams bankable.

“Jaws,” in 1975, sealed the deal. “I was very excited by that film. I thought it was a great picture. I still do,” says Williams, whose music for it won an Oscar. But he wasn’t able to enjoy it--his first wife, singer-actress Barbara Ruick, had died the previous year of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 43. “I was in a state of shock that year and the year after, so when all of these accolades were going on, I was barely aware of it,” he recalls.

It was on Spielberg’s recommendation that George Lucas hired Williams for “Star Wars”--a decision that Lucas calls easily as important to the film’s success as casting or script.

The score sold an unprecedented 4 million double albums, but, says Williams, the “real result of that for me was the opportunity to conduct the Boston Pops.” He substituted for an ailing Arthur Fiedler in 1978, and the Pops asked him to succeed Fiedler after his death in 1979.


Richard Dyer, music critic for the Boston Globe, witnessed Williams’ growth as a conductor during his 14-year tenure at the Pops. “I think John took the Pops job for a reason,” Dyer says. “He wanted to establish the ‘musical legitimacy’ of film music--and he succeeded in that.” He retired from the Pops in 1993 but is now its laureate conductor, and he still spends every summer at Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, teaching, conducting and writing.

“The most significant thing in my life and development was that the success of ‘Star Wars’ made it possible for me to be associated with one of the greatest orchestras in the world,” he says.

Once his 70th birthday month is past, Williams’ schedule doesn’t get any lighter. In March, he’ll perform the “E.T.” score live with the film at the Shrine Auditorium; in March and April, he is slated to compose the score for Spielberg’s “Minority Report”; in May, he conducts a series of concerts in Boston; and in the summer, there’s conducting at the Hollywood Bowl, in Cleveland and at Tanglewood. In the fall, he plans to score Spielberg’s next film, “Catch Me if You Can,” and possibly the next “Harry Potter” movie.

At the same time, he will be pursuing the kind of work that Previn and company are demanding.

He is excited about a commission to write a horn concerto for Dale Clevenger of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which is due in May 2003. Beyond that, he speaks of writing “a choral and orchestral piece of a fairly extended nature”; a “large-scale piece for orchestra”; another collaboration with Dove; and new pieces for Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Placido Domingo has announced that Williams will compose a work for L.A. Opera, although Williams says he is reluctant: “I’m an instrumental composer not a vocal composer.” Ozawa too says he has been “seriously pushing for him to write an opera” that Ozawa would conduct.


Says Dyer: “Even when he’s being a ventriloquist, as he sometimes has to be as a film composer, I don’t think he’s ever written a dishonest note. Like everybody else, some things worked out better than other things did. But I don’t think it’s a mechanical process for him. He can write music of heroic resolve because he feels heroic resolve. He’s drawing on his own inner life and creating additional dimensions in the movies. And that’s what makes the concert music work too.”

For his part, Williams is both modest and realistic about his successes. “I’ve been fortunate in the assignments that I’ve been given and in the collaborators with whom I’ve shared the stage,” he says.

“The more you work in music, the more years you spend with it, the more in love with it you become,” he adds. “It’s not like a job that’s distasteful. It’s the opposite of that--more seductive, more interesting.

“It’s been a long journey, a greatly rewarding one in every way,” Williams says. “An almost always happy one, and a continuing one. I don’t feel any differently about the need to work, and to work well, than I ever did. I don’t feel any differently about challenging every note I write any more now than when I was 35.”


Jon Burlingame is a regular contributor to Calendar.