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When Steven Spielberg finished a rough cut of 1993’s Schindler’s List, he brought composer John Williams, his veteran collaborator and longtime friend, into his projection room to screen the Holocaust drama and discuss their strategy for the score. Together, they watched the film, but when it was over, Williams was overwhelmed and not quite ready to speak.
“I went out to walk around the building to gather myself and come back to start the meeting,” Williams recalled Thursday night, telling the story from the top of the Dolby Theatre stage to close out a ceremony where he accepted his AFI Life Achievement Award. “I said, ‘Steven, this is truly a great film and you need a better composer than I for this film.’ And he said, very sweetly, ‘I know, but they’re all dead.’”
Williams — a five-time Oscar winner and 50-time nominee — is the first composer to receive the lifetime honor from the American Film Institute, and he took time in his acceptance speech to list all of the late composers who he thought were more deserving of the award, including Bernard Hermann and Alfred Newman.
But at the event, which was sponsored by Audi and Fiji Water, there were many directors and actors, as well as the occasional Los Angeles Laker, all ready and willing to sing Williams’ praises.
First up to honor the legendary composer was his longtime cinematic collaborator Spielberg. The two have worked together on 27 films, from The Sugarland Express to Indiana Jones and Jaws.
“When he played the [Jaws theme] for the first time for me on the piano, he had a big grin on his face and I thought he was joking. He wasn’t,” said the filmmaker to laughs.
Spielberg then showed the audience the bike scene of his film E.T. without Williams’ iconic score, as a way of demonstrating the important role that music played in the scene. “Without John Williams, bikes don’t fly and neither do brooms in Quidditch matches, nor do men in red capes,” he said. “There is no Force, dinosaurs do not walk the earth. We do not wonder, we do not weep, we do not believe.”
Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane recalled the very rare occurrence of being star-struck when he met the composer, saying, “It was the first time in years that I was on time to anything and it was the first time in even longer that I tucked in my shirt.”
Drew Barrymore, who was seven when she appeared in E.T., applauded Williams for his ability to recapture audiences’ childlike wonderment: “His music reminds [us] of our sense of wonder and transports us to a time when we would look at something and say, ‘Holy shit! That was amazing!’”
Jurassic World‘s Bryce Dallas Howard told the audience that when the cast of the pseudo-sequel would feel nervous about the pressure of continuing a beloved franchise, they would hum Williams’ Jurassic Park overture to calm their nerves.
Kobe Bryant, who returned to the Lakers following an injury and walked onto the court at Staples Center to the tune of “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme),” called Williams his “muse.”
Harrison Ford had a different experience with Williams’ music, saying of the Indiana Jones theme: “That damn music follows me everywhere. It was playing in the operating room when I went in for my colonoscopy.” He added: “John, you’re a genius.”
Harrison Ford attends the 44th AFI Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute honoring John Williams in partnership with Fiji Water at Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on June 9, 2016. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Fiji Water)
Between speeches came video tributes from Tom Cruise, director Chris Columbus, The Force Awakens actress Daisy Ridley and last year’s AFI Life Achievement honoree Steve Martin, who busted out a rendition of Williams’ Harry Potter theme song on the banjo.
The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams, who revealed that Williams often uses terms of endearment like “baby” and “angel” when referring to the helmer, first heard the musical themes for characters like Kylo Ren and Rey in Williams’ living room on his 100-year-old Steinway piano.
“Among the impossible number of things that George Lucas did so brilliantly and so right in 1977 was hiring John Williams, who would create a score so sublime and iconic and impactful for a film called Star Wars,” said Abrams.
“Star Wars was meant to be a simple hero’s journey, a fantasy for young people,” began Lucas during his tribute speech. “But then John’s music raised the film to an art that would stand the test of time.” Lucas thanked the composer for making his creative life easy, saying, “I had so many ideas for other movies, but I never got to them because you ensured that Star Wars would live forever.”
Saving Private Ryan’s Tom Hanks introduced a youth orchestra that performed the score from Schindler’s List, conducted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Gustavo Dudamel. Afterwards, Spielberg returned to the stage to finally hand the composer his award. (Spielberg got a lot of attention onstage during the night’s other presentation, when director Lesli Linka Glatter received the 2016 Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal for her commitment to excellence in film and TV.)
Saying that accepting the AFI Life Achievement Award won’t slow him down, Williams closed his speech by proclaiming that there would be no rest for the winner.
“Finally to the AFI and its members and our guests tonight, my heartfelt thanks for this indescribable evening,” he said. “Once I get over being stunned, I will treasure this night always. Tomorrow morning when I’m back at work, I will try to discern all of this.”
From left: George Lucas, Samantha Winslow, John Williams and Steven Spielberg at the 44th AFI Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute honoring Williams in partnership with Fiji Water at Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on June 9, 2016. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Fiji Water)
Kobe Bryant attends the 44th AFI Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute honoring John Williams in partnership with Fiji Water at Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on June 9, 2016. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Fiji Water)
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