John Williams Faces His Legacy: 54 Oscar Noms, ‘Star Wars’ Mistakes and Changing the Movies Forever

Harrison Ford can’t escape the two-and-a-half-minute fanfare that John Williams composed for his most famous cinematic hero, Indiana Jones. “As I often remind John, his music follows me everywhere I go — literally,” Ford says. “When I had my last colonoscopy, they were playing it on the operating room speakers.”

Creating those big, bold, brassy musical moments has become Williams’ trademark over his seven-decade career. Without his symphonic genius, some of the most indelible images in movie history — from E.T.’s flight across the moon to the ravenous shark zeroing in on an unsuspecting swimmer — would have lacked their singular power.

This year, Williams is resetting the record books again with his Academy Award nomination for best original score for “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.” It’s his 54th nomination, which is the most ever for someone not named Walt Disney, and thus the biggest tally for any living person — and any nonproducer, period.

“People ask about a legacy,” Williams says as he sits in the Amblin screening room on the Universal lot, adjacent to his bungalow office. “If I could be remembered as someone who did his job well and remembered as a good solid musician, I would rest very happily.”

Art Streiber for Variety

And even though he’s not ready to surrender the staff-lined paper and pencil with which he’s written his scores, Williams, 92, is also the oldest person to be nominated for an Oscar. Ask Williams what the 54 nominations mean to him, and he says, “Well, I’ve lost 49 of ’em, or something like that” — though for him the initial nods that come from the music branch are the main thing, because “the selection process is that of your peer group, and so their approval and appreciation is doubly meaningful. … Part of it is being very lucky, to be able to work as long as I have been able to do, health-wise and opportunity-wise. And I don’t think one ever gets really jaded to the point where these things are meaningless. Certainly not in my case.”

The whole world can agree: He really should have won more than five. Not that the list of wins he does have makes him anything like the Susan Lucci of the Oscars — after all, he prevailed with “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Schindler’s List,” to name a few of the most masterful scores in movie history. And his dozens of nominations are just one measure among many in keeping proper score of a filmography so distinguished that someone ought to write it a theme song.

Walk with Williams into his personal office on the Universal lot and you won’t spot many artifacts from his storied career — unless you count his piano, where he has sat and composed dozens and dozens of scores by hand. Framed in the entranceway to his office is a vintage poster, not for one of his own films, but for 1938’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” which won Erich Wolfgang Korngold an Oscar for his music — a score with a zesty sense of adventure that is positively Williams-esque.

There is a maximalism to that kind of scoring that wasn’t in vogue in the arty, hard-bitten ’70s when Williams set to work on George Lucas’ first “Star Wars” film, not knowing that he was hitting a reset button for the whole field.

“George was very clear to me that the music should be symphonic,” recalls Williams, a sunny man dressed, as almost always, in a black turtleneck. He is eloquent but soft-spoken. “I took it to mean late 19th century, maybe European — Mahler, Wagner, Strauss, that period of orchestral writing. He said it should be classical. Not Bach — not classical in the baroque sense, but in the romantic sense, the Byronic sense. Why? Because all the images you’re going to see are images of desolate places or places you’ve never seen before, with people wearing clothes you’ve never seen before. It’s all alien, the whole visual experience. So the emotional experience should be familiar. It should be a classical modality that describes heroism and romance and adventure and operatic emotions higher than reality.”

Art Streiber for Variety

“Star Wars” was not the one-off Williams had imagined, inspiring sequels, spinoffs and streaming series that continue to this day. And Williams’ music, with its sumptuous and stirring signatures, gave the space opera a transcendent power. “Doing it at the time, I didn’t think it was radical,” he says. “What made it radical was the embrace that it had. People seemed to have been starving for this kind of expression, and here was a vehicle into which it could be put.”

There was one blip in scoring the first movie. “I mistakenly wrote a love theme for Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker. I learned later that they were brother and sister, so it was an incestuous idea to have a love theme for them. But George never told us there was going to be a second film!”

Fortunately, Lucas didn’t scrub that romantic theme out of future releases like he did Han Solo drawing his blaster first on Greedo. But realizing the error of his ways gave Williams an opportunity to write Carrie Fisher a new, non-incestuous theme for “The Empire Strikes Back,” along with first-time leitmotifs for Darth Vader and Yoda that would further become part of this universe. Over the nine “Star Wars” films he scored, Williams has written 45 identifiable, recurring themes — or so he’s been told by fans. (“It’s hard to believe, but I imagine people are seriously counting.”)

As lush as that music was, Williams’ simple three-note theme for Bruce, the shark in “Jaws,” was his first bit of scoring to become a cultural touchstone. Steven Spielberg, the film’s director, thought the composer was pulling his leg, at first, with something so minimalist.

“I played boom boom boom on the piano for him,” Williams remembers, “and Steven said, ‘Are you serious?’ I said, ‘If you hear the basses and celli in the orchestra, I think it might work.’ And so we did a session with the orchestra, and he said, ‘Oh, this is wonderful.’ It was apropos of Benny Herrmann’s violins in ‘Psycho,’ which came from two notes. With ‘Jaws,’ we have three notes — two up, one down. But I don’t think doing ‘Psycho’ with Hitch and Benny was fun. Doing ‘Jaws’ with Steven was fun.”

Art Streiber for Variety

And a lesson in cultural malleability. “The intervening years have turned a whole circle around with this thing,” he says of the “Jaws” theme. “If I play it in a concert hall now, just like if you play the Herrmann ‘Psycho’ motif, they laugh. It’s become camp. Which is fine! But it frightened people at the time.”

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Williams’ next collaboration with Spielberg, also benefited from a very basic riff — a call-and-response between scientists and an alien craft. I point out that the five notes in this music is only a slight uptick from the three notes in the shark theme. “Five notes — Steven had that in his script,” Williams says. But he admits that he had a mathematical disagreement with Spielberg. “I wrote a few things that were seven notes; I was happier with those. Steven said, ‘No, no, no. Seven becomes a melody. It’s gotta be more like a signal.’ He was right.”

For his part, Spielberg doesn’t want to be remembered as the director responsible for getting the greatest film composer of all time to compose chord progressions you could count on one hand. “That’s funny,” Spielberg says about the “Jaws” and “Encounters” micro-melodies, but, he lightly protests, “the flying theme of ‘E.T.’ probably has as many notes as the main theme of ‘Star Wars’!”

And Spielberg has a theory for why Williams’ music is so unique. “Every score he’s ever composed, and even the ones that might have the most complicated orchestrations, he always has a beautiful main theme,” he says. “And I don’t hear themes being written for movies as much as they used to be by Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin and Bernard Herrmann. Film composition isn’t a lost art, but thematic scoring is becoming more and more a lost art. And the great thing about Johnny is, he’s still got it.”

In the case of “Schindler’s List,” the most solemn score Williams and Spielberg ever worked on together, the composer gave the filmmaker a choice of two possible main themes. But they disagreed about which music best conveyed the enduring sorrow of the Holocaust.

Recalls Williams, “I wrote two, principally — the one that we know and another one which is called ‘Remembrances’ — and we recorded both of them with Itzhak Perlman. ‘Remembrances’ was my preference, but I played both for Steven and he said, ‘No, no, no, it should be this one.’ I said, ‘Really? I like the other one better.’ He said, ‘No, there’s a spiritual aspect to this one.’” (Parts of the other theme remain, and film score buffs can still be found online debating which of the two is more heartbreaking.)

John Williams in his studio at Amblin on the Universal lot
Art Streiber for Variety

Of the 29 films they did together, Spielberg says, “‘Schindler’s List’ is the greatest piece of scoring John has ever done for me. I will never answer that question about what’s my favorite of my films. I think the best film I’ve made is ‘Schindler’s List.’ But I can say my favorite score and the best score — both combined — that John has done for me is ‘Schindler’s.’ It doesn’t just reach deeper into my soul — that score has reached the depths of so many others who know how important it was to the images that I was creating.”

Williams asked himself some essential thematic questions before scoring a Holocaust drama: “Should it be tonal? Should it be atonal? Should it be beautiful? Or tortured, because of the subject? Some of it is. I remember one scene I couldn’t even look at when we were playing it — a scene in the gas chambers — and the music is certainly not pretty.” But in the end, he was not going to hire Perlman as principal instrumentalist without giving the score a hauntedness that the audience could take home.

Even then, Williams delved deep into how different approaches might reflect Jewish music. “I wondered about the violin and Jewish popular culture, because you wouldn’t take the violin in those years into the synagogue, because instrumental music was not allowed.” With this, he leans back and spends several casually erudite minutes discussing his research into the scales and modalities of Jewish music in different European countries across centuries. But this was not a fresh subject for him: “I’d been through a lot of it, of course,” he says, “working for such a long time on ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’” Which, incidentally, was his first Oscar-winning project.

Williams remembers winning his first Academy Award, in 1972, mostly because of the classic beauty who handed it to him. That initial Oscar came in a long-since-dropped category (best scoring of music, adaptation or treatment) for his work bringing “Fiddler on the Roof” to the screen. It was presented by the Golden Age siren Betty Grable, who had been a movie star throughout Williams’ childhood. “She looked beautiful, and I thought, well, of all the people to present this to me, it was some kind of a link from the past … a part of Hollywood history herself,” he says.

Williams is also a link to that past. He’s scored movies for classic Hollywood directors like William Wyler, Gene Kelly and even Alfred Hitchcock (on his final film, “Family Plot”), along with newer-guard filmmakers like Brian De Palma, Robert Altman and Sydney Pollack. (The latter’s ’90s remake of “Sabrina,” with Ford, gave Williams the chance to write a romantic score he cites as a pet favorite.) His first feature score dates to 1958, for the B-picture “Daddy-O,” with a brassy theme that holds up today, even if it does have squealing-tire sound effects.

As far back as the late ’50s — when he was in his 20s — Williams was already friends with a lot of established film composers. “I had tremendous support from my older colleagues when I was young,” he recalls. “I knew them well because I played piano for all of them” — his first ongoing gig being as a session player. But, he says, there was not much of a sense of a baton being passed when he started to become a household name in the late ’70s, because by then “sadly, a lot of them were gone. Bernard Herrmann lived only to be 64 years old; it’s hard to imagine. And Alfred Newman, 69 — my God. To me now, these seem like teenagers, relative to where I’ve arrived at.”

Williams looks on as C3PO conducts the Boston Pops during a rehearsal in April 1980.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

Herrmann busted Williams’ chops for taking what he considered lesser jobs on musical adaptations such as “Fiddler.” “Benny was very adamant with me: ‘Write your own music! Don’t be doing orchestration work!’ and so on. He was very cross about it. But he was also a very tender man in many ways, even though he’s remembered as being a curmudgeon — which is accurate. But in saying that, he was very supportive of me, and that meant a lot.”

Conducting other people’s work has been something Williams never wanted to give up. (He still performs Herrmann’s music onstage.) It’s what he was doing when he won his second Oscar, for “Jaws.” “That year I was conducting the orchestra. So when they announced my name, I had to put the baton down, run to the podium and accept the award and run back to the orchestra and keep conducting, carrying the Oscar with me.” (He conducted for the Academy Awards three times altogether.)

Over the decades, he was aware of how the great film composers before him had a reputation for being cranky at best or tortured at worst. “Alex North, David Raksin, Jerry Goldsmith and others — brilliant, beautiful talents. All unhappy.” Most had barely suppressed ambitions to write concert music or symphonies instead of scoring movies. They believed that they were, in a sense, slumming it and laboring for directors who they described as “imperious and obstructive.”

“I thought, ‘Well, that’s not a complaint that I want to have to live with.’ So I went about it not to try to compete with Igor Stravinsky or the great classical composers, but to learn from the process of doing — the best school of all.”

Williams also notes that times have changed. Today, orchestras are happy to play film music. “If you went to the New York Philharmonic 40 years ago, they would be condescending about playing anything from Hollywood,” he says. “So I’m lucky that I’m living in a different period.”

Maybe luck has something to do with it, but there’s a case to be made that Williams created the era in which concert treatments of film music and live-to-screen presentations are beloved hallmarks of symphony seasons. He did that by writing themes the whole world wants to hear. He also did it by being a friendly ambassador for orchestras, fronting the Boston Pops or the L.A. Phil. Those who know Williams well say the audiences who have greeted him as America’s Composer are not mistaken in their impressions of him as a genial genius.

“I think John is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever worked with,” says Chris Columbus, the director who teamed with Williams on “Home Alone,” “Stepmom” and the first “Harry Potter” movie. “I’ve never seen him lose his temper. The fact that he is so kind and generous and brings that spirit to his music-writing capabilities — I think that’s why it’s so connective with people, because he does bring that element of his personality to his scores.”

Ford calls Williams “a gracious, gracious guy.” And in case you’re wondering what a guy like Ford does for fun besides flying planes and going fly-fishing, the answer is: attend John Williams scoring sessions. “It’s a delight to see him work with the orchestra — just the pleasure of being able to sit in a room and process the remarkable attention that each beat of the music gets. And their respect for him and his respect for them is just so much fun to watch.”

Williams and Steven Spielberg at the American Film Institute’s 44th Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute to the composer in 2016
Getty Images for AFI

James Mangold, director of the most recent “Indiana Jones” picture, says Williams’ good nature should not blind anyone to the fact that “these are extremely laborious scores. It is all handwritten by John, with pencil, on a piano. It is such a connection to Golden Age scoring methodologies. Writing on a computer and MIDI just doesn’t translate the same way, like oil versus tempera versus digital painting. John’s adherence to doing things his way is not merely obstinacy or age, but dedication to a kind of woodworking, as it were, that is largely not done anymore,”

At the final “Dial of Destiny” scoring session at Sony, Mangold says he became emotional. “I was in tears, not because I thought it was John’s last score … but because I’ve grown up in a cynical time, in a cynical business, and watching him do his job was a confirmation of pure idealism.”

Mangold almost didn’t get a chance to work so closely with the maestro. The original plan was for Williams to write some additional themes for Indy’s last stand, and then turn the rest of the scoring and orchestrations over to someone else. But the composer changed his mind after he fell in love with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s mischievous character, the adventurer Helena Shaw, in the rough cut. He decided to write a recurring theme just for her — hence, the Grammy he recently won, his 26th, for best instrumental composition for “Helena’s Theme.” And he kept writing, completing the score and, with it, his connection to the “Indiana Jones” franchise.

“I wanted very much to do all the ‘Star Wars’ films if I could, to keep the whole thing in one piece in a way,” he says. “And I’ve been asked why I wanted to do five ‘Indiana Jones’ films: Same reason.” Not that he can keep playing parent to the more open-ended blockbuster franchises he’s kick-started. “Now they’re doing a lot more with ‘Star Wars,’ of course, at a volume that I can’t keep up with.”

There was a sense for a while that Williams was winding down his film career with Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” and the final “Indiana Jones” installment. But last year, in a joint appearance with Spielberg at an American Cinematheque event, Williams retracted his retirement claims and declared that he would never be able to say no to the director.

Williams is currently underway on a concert piece and is booked for gigs like a Hollywood Bowl return appearance this summer. “We’ll see how the time goes,” he says, of following up “Dial of Destiny” with further scores. “I have the time I need to finish this concerto, and I will begin to have some free time later this year. If there’s an opportunity there that I think I can fill and enjoy doing with people I will enjoy, I see no reason not to do it.”

According to Spielberg, Williams repeatedly tells him that he’s waiting for his next assignment. “Every time we see each other,” Spielberg says, “Johnny asks, ‘Are you working on our next film?’ Because John has been my primary creative partner across my entire film career. And that’s not gonna end until we do.”

Grooming by Samantha Fryling/Art Department

From Variety US