His compositional career began in the early 1960s with television series such as Peter Gunn, Wagon Train, Gilligan's Island, and Lost in Space. He was able to work as an orchestrator and arranger with industry giants Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman, Alfred Newman, Henry Mancini, and André Previn. In 1972 he received his first Academy Award for his adaptation of Jerry Bock's music for Fiddler on the Roof, but it was his scores for Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) and George Lucas' Star Wars (1977) that brought him real notice. Those full, orchestral scores led some to claim that he alone was responsible for reviving the symphonic style of film music and were the beginning of two long-standing composer/director partnerships.
Williams' score to Star Wars made the composer a household name. He scored every one of Lucas' later Star Wars films, then after a ten-year break, scored J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens in 2015. Williams' collaboration with Spielberg actually began with The Sugarland Express in 1974. It continued with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Empire of the Sun, the Indiana Jones films, E.T., Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, Munich, Lincoln, and 2016's adaptation of Roald Dahl's book, The BFG. Other films known for their memorable Williams' themes include Superman (1979), The Witches of Eastwick, and Memoirs of a Geisha. His Grammy wins have included many of these scores, plus Angela's Ashes, Munich, and The Book Thief.
A public face appeared to go with the name when Williams was chosen to conduct the Boston Pops after Arthur Fiedler's death. Under his leadership, the orchestra maintained its popularity, toured America several times, and made concert versions of his movie themes regular pops fare. Although maintaining close ties to Boston after leaving the Pops in 1993 and continuing to guest conduct a number of orchestras, Williams has spent some of his time composing concert music, such as 1995's bassoon concerto The Five Sacred Trees and 2000's violin concerto TreeSong.
Among the many honors Williams has received, in 2003 the International Olympic Committee gave him the Olympic Order for his work with the Games, and in 2009 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House. In 2016 the American Film Institute honored him as the first composer to receive its Lifetime Achievement Award.