From “Star Wars” to “Jaws” to “Schindler’s List,” John Williams has written many of the most instantly recognizable scores in cinema history.
The 91-year-old is already the oldest person to receive an Oscar nomination for a competitive award, which he earned thanks to his spare yet poignant compositions for Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans.”
With 53 total nods, Williams has more Academy Award nominations than any other living person, and is second only to Walt Disney, who had 59.
And if he gets another statuette on Sunday, which would be his sixth, he will become the oldest person ever to triumph in any competitive category. The record is currently held by screenwriter James Ivory, who was 89 when he won.
It “seems unreal that anybody could be that old and working that long,” Williams recently told NBC News, adding: “It’s very exciting, even after 53 years.”
“I’m very pleased, I think it’s a human thing — the gratification of any kind of appreciation of one’s work,” he said.
Out of the dozens of nominations over the course of his extraordinary career, the composer won Academy Awards for the original “Star Wars,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and three films by Spielberg, with whom he is closely associated — “Jaws,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Schindler’s List.”
He’s even competed against himself multiple times for Oscars glory.
Williams is known for his grand neo-Romantic scores in the fashion of Wagner, a contrast to the more experimental fare prevalent among many modern composers outside Hollywood.
But his work is also steeped in mid-century influences including jazz and popular American standards.
Williams holds he’s not as Wagnerian as his music might indicate but admits the 19th century German giant’s influence on Hollywood’s early composers, and therefore his own, is palpable.
“Wagner lives with us here — you can’t escape it,” he told The New Yorker in 2020. “I have been in the big river swimming with all of them.”
‘Single greatest collaboration’
Williams was born on February 8, 1932, in New York’s Queens borough to a percussionist father, and was the eldest of four children.
The family moved to Los Angeles in 1948, where Williams later studied composition and took a semester of jazz band at Los Angeles City College.
While in the Air Force, he played both piano and brass while arranging music for the service’s band.
Afterwards, he moved to New York, where he enrolled at the prestigious Juilliard school to study piano.
Though he aspired to be a concert pianist, it became clear to Williams that composition was his forte.
He moved back to LA, where he worked on orchestrations at film — earning plaudits for his range — and as a session pianist, including for the film adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.”
Williams notched his first Oscar nod for the 1967 film “Valley of the Dolls,” and won his first in 1972 for “Fiddler on the Roof.”
His momentous partnership with Spielberg began in the early 1970s, when the soon to be household-name director approached him to score his debut, “The Sugarland Express.”
Spielberg approached him once more to work on his second film, “Jaws.”
The menacing two-note ostinato Williams composed for the film has practically become synonymous with fear itself: “John Williams actually is the teeth of Jaws,” Spielberg said last year at a concert for the composer’s 90th birthday.
The pair then worked on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and a decades-long creative partnership unfurled.
At the Williams birthday celebration in Washington, Spielberg dubbed their relationship “the single greatest collaboration of my career and one of the deepest friendships of my life.”
“Through the medium of movies, John has popularized motion picture scores more than any other composer in history,” he said.
‘Soundtrack of our lives’
Spielberg also introduced Williams to one George Lucas — it would become another iconic collaboration that spawned perhaps the most recognizable film score ever.
Several of Williams’ “Star Wars” compositions are prime examples of leitmotif, with musical cues tying together the vast, character-rich story.
“He has written the soundtrack of our lives,” conductor Gustavo Dudamel told The New York Times last year. “When we listen to a melody of John’s, we go back to a time, to a taste, to a smell.”
“All our senses go back to a moment,” Dudamel said.
Other credits from Williams’ more than 100 film scores include the music for 1978’s “Superman,” the first three “Harry Potter” films and a number of “Indiana Jones” films.’
“Harrison Ford made Indiana Jones into an iconic action hero, but John made us believe in adventure again, through that pulse-pounding march,” said Spielberg.
Off-screen, Williams is responsible for the “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” first composed for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles and used ever since on U.S. broadcasts.
Williams recently indicated he might take a step back from film scoring, giving more energy to conducting and composing concert music; he was a longtime leader of the Boston Pops orchestra.
But speaking at a panel with Spielberg earlier this year, Williams seemed to walk back the notion of slowing down, vowing to work until he’s 100 or so.
“So I’ve got 10 more years to go. I’ll stick around for a while!” he told the crowd. “You can’t ‘retire’ from music. It’s like breathing.”