TIMELINES: JOHN WILLIAMS
PART ONE: BEFORE EVERYTHING CHANGED
By Scott Bettencourt
In two recentcolumns,
I presented a list of major composers, past and present, and the ages at
which they reached various achievements in their careers -- first feature
scores, first blockbuster hit, first Oscar nomination, and so forth. But
the path of a composer's career involves countless turns and twists, and
there's no film composer living today who has had a more remarkable career
than John Williams.
Though Williams has been the top composer in Hollywood for the last
three decades, his rise to the top was slow, and his career in music moved
along several parallel paths. He began scoring TV episodes in the late
1950s, with such series as Playhouse 90, Bachelor Father and M
Squad (the M Squad LP even featured some of his music). His
first feature score was the 1958 B-movie Daddy-O, which today is
best known for its revival as a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode
(while its star became the subject of a James Ellroy novella, Dick Contino's
At the same time he was serving as a session pianist, working for rising
composers (Jerry Goldsmith, on 1960's Studs Lonigan) as well as
Golden Age masters (Franz Waxman, on 1962's Hemingway's Adventures of
a Young Man). He was also working as an arranger -- one of his most
notable credits was Shelley Manne's jazz LP of the My Fair Lady score,
released in 1964.
Before John Williams became a household name with Jaws and Star
Wars, the previous household name film composer was Henry Mancini,
and though one hardly thinks of Williams' output of the last three decades
as Mancini-esque (except perhaps his tuneful Sabrina score), for
the first part of the 1960s he seemed to be developing into a B-list Mancini
(which is only fitting, since Williams also worked as a session pianist
for Mancini, including the classic Peter Gunn album).
Despite his many wonderful dramatic orchestral scores over the years,
Mancini was best known for two types of scoring -- jazz scores and comedy
music. Mancini had had his first major hit with his azz score for TV's
Peter Gunn, and Williams earned his first Grammy nomination for
the soundtrack to 1960's Checkmate,
a mystery series created by novelist Eric Ambler, with a jazz score and
a memorable Williams theme. He also earned back-to-back Emmy nominations,
in 1962 and 1963, for his music for Alcoa Premiere.
And though he scored a fair number of dramatic films through the mid-sixties,
such as Don Siegel's remake of The Killers and the Western The
Rare Breed, Williams' comedy scores were his most high profile feature
work, with albums released of his music for Fitzwilly (the best
of his '60s score albums),
With My Wife, You Don't, Penelope,
to Steal a Million. The latter was a particularly notable credit for
Williams, as it featured two top stars of the era, Audrey Hepburn and Peter
O'Toole, and was directed by one of the most awarded filmmakers in Hollywood,
William Wyler. (It's a little ironic that Williams' '60s comedy scores
should be well represented on LP, since these days it's comedy scores that
are least likely to receive soundtrack releases -- just ask David Newman
or Teddy Castellucci -- though it helped that Williams' comedies had theme
songs and thus the albums were considered commercially viable, especially
since the contemporary trend of song-soundtrack albums was years away).
The light-hearted, Mancini-esque Williams was the one best represented
at your local record score in the mid-'60s, but it was another side of
Williams that was making a big impression on film and TV music fans during
that era. Irwin Allen had four science fiction series on the air during
the second half of the decade, and Williams made major contributions to
three of them. For Lost and Space he provided both of the main themes
-- the more cartoonish Season 1 theme, and irresistibly exciting Season
3 -- as well as four individual episode scores. He wrote the pilot score
and the inventive main theme for the comparatively short-lived Time
Tunnel, and the pilot score (replacing a rejected Alexander Courage
score) and two lively main title themes for Land of the Giants.
Surprisingly, these wonderful themes didn't lead to any big screen science-fiction
scores, but they are still amongst the most memorable TV music of all time.
(During this period he also scored over a dozen Gilligan's Island
episodes, but despite the show's continuing status as a cult classic, his
contribution is little more than an amusing footnote to his career -- there
has yet to be any great clamor for a CD release of Williams' Gilligan
music, delightful as that would be).
In 1968, he earned his first Oscar nomination, for adapting Andre &
Dory Previn's songs for the score to Mark Robson's 1967 film of Valley
of the Dolls, and the same year he earned his first Emmy, for a remake
of Heidi (the Heidi which became notorious when an NBC exec
pre-empted the end of a Jets-Raiders football game so that Heidi would
start on time, an incident still remembered four decades later), but it
was the following year that would see one of his biggest career breakthroughs.
Director Mark Rydell had enjoyed a hit with his first film, the D.H. Lawrence
adaptation The Fox, and its Lalo Schifrin score earned the composer
his second Oscar nomination, so it was natural that the pair would reteam
for Rydell's film of William Faulkner's The Reivers. However, Schifrin's
score was ultimately rejected, and Williams' replacement score, a rollicking
dose of Americana, earned the composer his first Original Score nomination.
While The Reivers helped establish Williams as a composer, the
same year saw the release of Goodbye,
Mr. Chips, for which Williams arranged the Leslie Bricusse songs
as well providing the incidental music, a mix of Bricusse themes and Williams
originals. This was the first year Williams received two Oscar nominations
-- an honor for any composer, but for Williams it would occur with almost
clockwork regularity over the next three and a half decades.
These achievements didn't make Williams an instant A-list composer --
he was also scoring relative obscurities like the romantic drama Story
of a Woman (whose cast included composer Mario Nascimbene), and Daddy's
Gone-a-Hunting, a quasi-Hitchcockian thriller about a married woman
stalked by a psycho ex-boyfriend who wants revenge for the termination
of their pregnancy (directed by Valley of the Dolls' Mark Robson,
from a Larry Cohen script).
1970 and 1971 saw the releases of two more Williams' milestones. The
Delbert Mann-directed remake of Jane Eyre, starring George C. Scott
and Susannah York, was released theatrically in England but shown on TV
in the United States. Williams' classically inflected score was a marvelously
elaborate and emotionally satisfying work, and earned the composer yet
another Emmy. His nominated work on Goodbye, Mr. Chips led to a
similar role on Norman Jewison's blockbuster film of Fiddler on the
Roof (Williams was even involved with the casting sessions), and his
music direction earned the composer his first Oscar.
1972 was a particularly eclectic year for the composer, with four feature
scores and a rare TV movie score, the Ray Bradbury adaptation The Screaming
Woman, starring Olivia de Havilland. His score for Martin Ritt's comedy-drama
'n' Tillie was a minor work, sparsely spotted (as was common with Ritt's
films) but with a memorable main theme. The Cowboys was his second
score for Mark Rydell, and with this high-concept John Wayne Western he
expanded upon the Americana approach of The Reivers and gave it
a more Copland-esque feeling; the film was popular enough to spawn a short-lived
His other two feature scores for the year were among the five nominated
in the Original Score category (the first of seven occasions in which Williams
would earn two of the five slots), and the two projects demonstrating differing
potential routes for Williams' career. 1970's Airport was the first
disaster hit of the decade, but it was the success of Irwin Allen's production
of The Poseidon Adventure that insured the trend. With Williams'
track record in scoring imperiled travelers in all those Irwin Allen sci-fi
shows, he was a natural to score this film about a capsized ocean liner,
though his tense, low-key score was not your typical Oscar nominee.
Williams' other Oscar-nominated score of 1972 was even more unusual.
Robert Altman was one of the most groundbreaking and influential American
filmmakers of the early '70s, and the success of M*A*S*H allowed
him to make experimental films like Images, a surreal psychological
thriller with Susannah York as a possibly delusional woman. Altman and
Williams had worked together in television before Altman's feature career
took off (Williams' scored Altman's TV movie Nightmare in Chicago
in 1964), and Williams' Images score was one of the most unusual
of his career, mixing lovely, classical styled cues with the offbeat vocals
and percussive sounds of Stomu Yamashta (who later score Paul Mazursky's
Altman and Williams reunited the following year for a more critically
successful film (ultimately considered one of Altman's greatest), the modernization
of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, and Williams' source-dominated
score, with every cue a reworking of his original title song, was droll
parody of conventional Hollywood scoring -- Williams would never again
be as experimental as he was on Images and Long Goodbye.
The rest of Williams' output in 1973 was similarly eclectic. He wrote
a sparse score for the surprise hit The Paper Chase, a lively replacement
score for the romantic Western The
Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (in a very different style from his Copland-esque
and worked in a rare blues-pop vein for the romantic drama
Liberty, his third film for Mark Rydell, which earned him nominations
for Score and Song. He managed to achieve the nomination trifecta that
year, earning a third nomination for his adaptation of the Sherman Brothers'
songs for Tom Sawyer, but it was Marvin Hamlisch who managed to
win all three 1973 music Oscars.
Williams was originally announced to score Robert Altman's gambling
drama, California Split, which featured his actress wife Barbara
Ruick in a supporting role. Ruick died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage
during the filming and Williams left the project, though despite his personal
tragedy (which inspired his violin concerto), he kept working. He wrote
a relatively brief score for Martin Ritt's Conrack, and scored the
first two major disaster films to follow The Poseidon Adventure,
both for past Williams' collaborators -- Mark Robson's Earthquake,
and Irwin Allen's production of The Towering Inferno (directed by
John Guillermin). Both films were boxoffice smashes, with Towering Inferno
nominations for Best Picture and Original Score among others, while Earthquake
was short-listed in the Score category.
Despite the twin disaster successes (if that isn't an oxymoron), it
was another, much more obscure release that inaugurated the sea change
in Williams' career. It was only when Lalo Schifrin's score was rejected
that Williams got the job of scoring The Reivers, and his Americana
scores for Reivers and another Mark Rydell film, The Cowboys,
were what inspired Steven Spielberg to hire him for his debut feature,
the fact-based tragicomedy The Sugarland Express, though Williams
ultimately argued against Spielberg's desire for Copland-esque music and
wrote a twangy, more intimate score. Despite their disagreement over the
approach, the collaboration was successful enough that the following year,
they reunited for a project which, for both men, pretty much changed everything.
NEXT TIME: Williams scores the classics: Heartbeeps,
Monsignor, Sleepers...and a few science-fiction and war movies too.