13 TV Themes You Didn’t Realize Were From Movie Maestro John Williams
At the 90th Oscars ceremony on Sunday, March 4, legendary film composer John Williams is nominated for his 51st Academy Award, in the Original Score category for his work creating the musical backdrop to the mega-hit Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Williams, who has won five Oscars to date, has now broken his own record—which he first set in 2016—as the most-nominated living person in Oscars history (Walt Disney still has the record for the most nominations ever, with 59).
While Williams has certainly been most prolific with, and famed for, his big-screen compositions—like his scores for the Star Wars franchise, the Indiana Jones films, the first few Harry Potter movies, most of the works of Steven Spielberg—some may not be as aware of the mark that the composer has left on the small screen.
Early on in his career (when he was often billed as “Johnny” Williams), the maestro created musical works for television that showed glimpses of the creative genius future filmgoers would come to recognize and love. Even later, during the heights of his fame scoring some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters, he found time to create themes that are still heard on TV and hummed by audiences.
Take a look back—and a listen— to some of John Williams’ most notable TV themes:
In his late 20s, young “Johnny” Williams already displayed his love for blasting brass instruments that would be hallmarks of some of his later, epic film scores. He also seemed to borrow elements from his earlier days as a jazz musician when he penned the hardboiled theme for this detective series starring Anthony George, Sebastian Cabot, and Doug McClure.
Gilligan’s Island Pilot (1964)
Even hardcore Williams fans may not have realized his involvement in Sherwood Schwartz’s classic sitcom. Williams composed (and Schwartz sang the lyrics to) a Calypso-infused title theme that was used in the series’ unaired pilot episode, but was never heard by audiences. It was soon replaced with the more famous title tune we know today. This was probably a good call, given that this isn’t some of Williams’ finest work (though it does display the lighter touch he’s capable of when it came to scoring later comedic films).
Lost in Space (1965-68)
Over a decade before he reinvigorated movie sci-fi music with the iconic score for Star Wars, Williams—still being billed as “Johnny”—composed the two different themes for this classic space-set series, each of which bear the composer’s unmistakable mark in their own ways. It was also the first time Williams teamed with producer Irwin Allen on a project; Williams would go on to score a few more Allen TV productions, as well as some of the producer’s famous big-screen disaster epics in the ’70s, like The Towering Inferno.
In the theme used for Seasons 1 and 2 of Lost in Space, you notice some of Williams’ lighter touches, giving the impression of drifting aimlessly—being “lost,” if you will—in space, but also indicating the exciting adventures ahead, despite the piece’s relatively slow tempo:
For our money, Williams’ more uptempo theme for Season 3 of Lost in Space is where it’s at. Beginning with a pulse-pounding countdown, it explodes into that thrilling, Williams-esque brass bombast that would mark many of his later sci-fi works on the big-screen. As cool as Netflix’s upcoming reboot of Lost in Space seems to be, we doubt it’ll have music that grabs you and throws you into the action like this one does:
The Tammy Grimes Show (1966)
“Johnny” Williams clearly borrowed from his jazz background again for this oh-so-’60s theme for a sitcom most never knew existed— it was canceled after only four episodes. Williams’ “mod” score may be the only thing worth remembering about the show, even if the composition is a relic of its time.
The Time Tunnel (1966-67)
Another Irwin Allen production, this sci-fi series featured a swirling Williams title theme that captured the visuals of the opening credits, as well as the overall theme of time travelers falling across different eras.
Land of the Giants (1968-70)
John Williams and Irwin Allen teamed yet again for this series, for which Williams came up with another snappy, sci-fi/jazzy theme. As with Lost in Space, the show featured different themes, including this one for Season 2.
Infamously remembered for pre-empting what turned out to be a thrilling, classic finish to an NFL game, this 1968 NBC TV movie based on the classic novel at least featured a lovely, Emmy-winning score by Williams. Still, even that may not have been enough to placate irate football fans.
Jane Eyre (1971)
Williams took home his second Emmy for his score to another adaptation of a classic. This version of Charlotte Brontë’s novel aired theatrically in Britain in 1970 before hitting U.S. airwaves a year later, with Williams’ swooning music capturing the essence of the Gothic romance.
“Olympic Fanfare and Theme” (1984)
If you tuned in at all to NBC’s recent coverage of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, you may have heard pieces of this Olympic theme John Williams composed for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. This was even before NBC was broadcasting the quadrennial sporting event.
Since NBC has been the sole Olympics broadcaster in the U.S., this theme has regularly surfaced during coverage, often used alongside the more familiar “Bugler’s Dream” fanfare, which has become an Olympic anthem. The latter piece was originally composed by Leo Arnaud, and is sometimes wrongly-attributed to Williams (it doesn’t help that sometimes the two themes are melded together).
But Williams’ “Olympic Fanfare and Theme,” even on its own, captures the awe and promise of what the Olympics are supposed to entail, and it’s no surprise broadcasters keep coming back to it.
NBC News (1985-present)
In 1985, NBC News commissioned Williams to write musical themes for its national broadcasts. He came up with “The Mission,” a stirring piece that lets viewers know the serious professionalism with which the journalists will be presenting the news. But there have also been lighter adaptations used for NBC’s TODAY show. And though it’s been tweaked and adapted over the decades, you can still hear it on NBC News.
Amazing Stories (1985-87)
By the mid-’80s, John Williams had already been long-established as Steven Spielberg’s go-to musical collaborator for his feature films. So it made sense that the blockbuster director would turn to the acclaimed composer for music when he produced this sci-fi/fantasy anthology series for NBC.
In terms of the stories, Spielberg’s series tended to be hit-or-miss (and not always “amazing”), but Williams’ theme music hit the ball out of the park once again, making viewers feel like they were in for a fantastic, out-of-this-world experience.
NBC Sunday Night Football (2006-present)
All of the major networks that air NFL football games have theme music that tries to convey the epic, almost gladiatorial combat that is about to take place on the gridiron. But perhaps none have been as effective at achieving that feeling than the music Williams came up with for NBC’s Sunday Night Football (a theme that is separate from the “Waiting All Day For Sunday Night” song also featured on the broadcast).
The music has been tweaked over the years, with some electronic flourishes added, but the underlying thrill of the exciting theme still shines through.
Great Performances (2009-present)
Williams won another Emmy for his theme to PBS’ tentpole fine arts series, which has been used by the program since 2009, and which, appropriately, exudes class and gravitas.