Even if you don’t know acclaimed composer John Williams by name, you definitely know him by sound. The baa-dum baa-dum of the Jaws theme? He wrote it. The dun dun dun dun-ta-dun dun-ta-dun that welcomes Darth Vader to the screen? He’s responsible for that one, too. The swashbuckling bravado of the Indiana Jones theme, the mournful violin in Schindler’s List, the wonder-struck chords of Jurassic Park? Yes to all three — and dozens more. Cinema’s most celebrated composer is turning 90 on Feb. 8, and to celebrate his big day, we’ve compiled a list of fascinating facts about his very musical life. But if you want to really honor him on his birthday, finish reading this list and then go watch one of the more than 100 films that feature his music!
1. He single-handedly created the sound of Star Wars
Between 1977 and 2019, Williams wrote the original scores for all nine films in the Skywalker Saga, amounting to some 18 hours of recorded music. The score became known for its use of Wagner-like leitmotifs, or repeated musical themes associated with different characters; you know instantly, for example, when Darth Vader is approaching because the music turns militaristic, while Leia is often scored by sweet, flute-driven melodies. His work on the franchise earned him an Oscar and six Grammys, including one for the original music that plays in the Galaxy’s Edge themed lands in Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
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2. He’s responsible for the highest-selling instrumental single of all time
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the best-selling instrumental song of all time is producer Meco’s disco arrangement of “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band,” which was featured on his album Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk. The single peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in October 1977, and it stayed on the charts for 20 weeks. It ultimately sold more than 2 million units, making it the only instrumental single to ever reach platinum.
3. He made a cameo in The Rise of Skywalker
Williams announced he was retiring from the Star Wars universe after 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker, and producers celebrated his accomplishments with a brief cameo in the film. At the 48:36 mark, the white-bearded Williams makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance as Oma Tres, a bartender on the planet of Kijimi. To make the scene even more special, director J.J. Abrams tasked the production team with filling the bar with props that referenced other John Williams–scored films done up as if they were made a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Squint and you might spot a time-turner from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, an iron from Home Alone, Indiana Jones’ whip, yellow barrels from Jaws, E.T.’s spaceship and tiny pilot wings from Catch Me If You Can.
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4. He has more Oscar nominations than any other living person
With 52 Academy Award nominations, Williams is the most-nominated person alive, second only to Walt Disney’s 59 nods. He’s won five times for adapting the Fiddler on the Roof score and for his work on Jaws, Star Wars, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Schindler’s List. His nominations span from 1968 for his work on Valley of the Dolls to 2020 for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, making him the only artist to have received nominations in seven decades.
5. Steven Spielberg has collaborated with him on nearly every one of his films since 1974
Starting with The Sugarland Express in 1974, Williams has composed the score for all but five of Steven Spielberg’s films: Twilight Zone: The Movie, The Color Purple, Bridge of Spies, Ready Player One and West Side Story (although he did serve as music consultant for the last). Williams told Today national correspondent Jamie Gangel that he faced his biggest challenge with Schindler’s List: “I said to Steven, ‘You need a better composer than I am for this film.’ He said to me, ‘I know. But they’re all dead!’”
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6. He isn’t the only musical member of his family
Williams’ father was percussionist Johnny Williams, who played for bands led by the likes of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey and appeared on the soundtracks of such films as On the Waterfront and From Here to Eternity. The composer’s first wife, Barbara Ruick, who died in 1974 at age 43, played Carrie Pipperidge in the film version of Carousel and the wicked stepsister Esmerelda in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. And Ruick and Williams’ son Joseph has been the on-again, off-again lead singer of the band Toto, after first joining the group in 1986.
7. His AFI Lifetime Achievement Award was a first of its kind
In 2016, the American Film Institute honored Williams with its Lifetime Achievement Award, marking the first time that it was given to someone who wasn’t primarily known for acting or directing. The AFI also included three of Williams’ works on its ranking of the best film scores of all time, more than any other composer: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial at 14, Jaws at 6 and Star Wars at the top of the list.
8. He was in the U.S. Air Force before going to Juilliard
In the early 1950s, Williams played piano and brass in the U.S. Air Force Band while stationed in Arizona and then Newfoundland. “We played dances on the American bases and the Canadian base, and little concerts that were staged, and even radio programs,” he told the CBC. “It was actually a wonderful school. My mates were, many of them, super musicians that ended up in American symphony orchestras later.” In fact, it was his time in the Canadian province that led to his first composition for film. A local production company, Atlantic Films, hired Williams to arrange the score for a Newfoundland tourism film called You Are Welcome. He went to the library and researched local folk tunes, with memorable titles like “Jack Was Ev’ry Inch a Sailor,” “The Squid Jigging Ground” and “Lots of Fish in Bonavist’ Harbour,” and rearranged them into a score. The work might have been lost forever if it hadn’t been for filmmaker Derek Norman, who salvaged equipment and reels from the Atlantic Films building before it was set to be demolished in 1980.
9. And you can also hear his music on television
Williams has left his mark on the small screen as well as the big one, having written the theme songs for a wide range of shows, including Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, NBC Nightly News, Meet the Press, Great Performances and NBC Sunday Night Football. Speaking of football, he won his first Emmy for the 1968 made-for-TV film version of Heidi, which notoriously interrupted a big 1968 NFL game that got dubbed the Heidi Bowl; viewers missed the Oakland Raiders making two touchdowns in the final minute of the game to win 43-32.
10. He’s won every kind of award imaginable
In addition to his Oscars, Grammys, Emmys and Golden Globes, Williams has received the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honor, and he was inducted into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame. Shockingly, he still doesn’t have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
11. Not all of his 25 Grammys are for film music
While Williams is of course best known for his work in film, two of his 25 Grammys (out of 72 nominations) are for compositions not made for the movies: one for the Star Wars theme park land and another in 1985 for best instrumental composition for his “Olympic Fanfare and Theme,” which debuted at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. “I’m not an avid sports fan and I have never been to an Olympics,” he told The New York Times. “But from watching the Olympics competition on television, I gained a feeling that I aspired to make the theme of Fanfare. A wonderful thing about the Olympics is that young athletes strain their guts to find and produce their best efforts. The human spirit stretching to prove itself is also typical of what musicians attempt to achieve in a symphonic effort. It is difficult to describe how I feel about these athletes and their performances without sounding pretentious, but their struggle ennobles all of us. I hope I express that in this piece.”
12. Before he became a composer, he was an accomplished pianist
As a studio pianist and session musician, he tickled the ivories on the scores for such iconic films as Some Like It Hot, West Side Story and To Kill a Mockingbird. You can also hear his fancy fingerwork on the original recording of Henry Mancini’s jazzy theme for Peter Gunn in 1959.
13. Don’t worry: He’s not retiring yet!
Though Williams will not be returning to the Star Wars films, he’s set to compose the score for the fifth Indiana Jones film. It’s expected to premiere in summer 2023, when Williams will be 91, and if he happens to pick up his sixth Oscar for the project, it will make him the oldest competitive winner of all time; the record holder is Call Me by Your Name screenwriter James Ivory, who won at the age of 89.
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.