The Johnny Williams era of television

John Williams

John Williams told The Assocated Press earlier this month, that his score for Indiana Jones 5 may be his final movie work.

“I don’t want to be seen as categorically eliminating any activity,” The 90-year-old composer told AP. But a Star Wars score, he said, is a six-month commitment and “at this point in life is a long commitment to me.”

Williams is known mostly for his film scores, which include 51 Oscar nominations beginning in the 1960s for scores and songs. Williams was the composer of choice for director Steven Spielberg, a collaboration that lasted decades.

However, once upon a time, Williams was known as Johnny Williams and his work was all over television in the 1950s and 1960s.

Television Days

Williams played piano on the Peter Gunn theme for Henry Mancini. Williams also played as a musician in film scores such as The Magnificent Seven, Sweet Smell of Success and To Kill a Mockingbird, he recalled in a 2002 tribute to composer Elmer Bernstein.

Before he was famous: John(ny) Williams title card for the Kraft Suspense Theater episode Once Upon a Savage Night (black and white copy of a color original).

Williams was hired in 1958 by Stanley Wilson, music supervisor for Revue television (later Universal), to score episodes of M Squad, a police drama starring Lee Marvin. At that point, the composer was billed as John T. Williams Jr.

Wilson evidently liked the results and kept bringing Williams back for work. One of Williams’ jobs for Revue writing the theme for Checkmate, a 1960-62 series created by Eric Ambler.

Checkmate concerned the exploits of two private eyes (Anthony George and Doug McClure) assisted by an academic (Sebastian Cabot). Williams was now billed as Johnny Williams.

Before he was famous: John Williams title card for the unaired pilot of Gilligan’s Island.

Williams also did the theme (and scored some episodes for) a Revue anthology show, Kraft Suspense Theater. One of the installments he scored, Once Upon a Savage Night, was a particularly tense story about the search by Chicago authorities for a psychopathic killer (Philip Abbott).

In his TV days, Williams was versatile. His credits included the odd sitcom, such as the unaired pilot (plus additional episodes) of Gilligan’s Island as well as the theme for The Tammy Grimes Show, a quickly canceled program in the 1966-67 season.

Producer Irwin Allen brought in Williams to work on series such as Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel, which credited Johnny Williams for their themes.

Johnny Williams even showed up on camera in the first episode of Johnny Staccato, a 1959 series starring John Cassavettes and made at Revue. Williams, clean-shaven and with hair, played a jazz pianist. He was listed in the cast as Johnny Williams.

The Johnny Williams era drew to a close by the late 1960s. His credit for the theme of Irwin Allen’s Land of the Giants series listed the composer as John Williams. For Williams, the best was yet to come.

The man who hired Goldsmith, Williams and others

Stanley Wilson’s title card (along with others) on a first-season episode of Universal’s The Name of the Game

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

The blog’s post this week about the television factory run by MCA Corp.’s Revue Studios (later Universal Television) didn’t have room to get into some details. This post is aimed at remedying that.

One of Revue-Universal’s stalwarts was Stanley Wilson, who ran the music department.

In that capacity, he hired composers who had to work under tight deadlines. Wilson hired some of the best, some of whom would become major film composers.

One of Wilson’s hires was Jerry Goldsmith (1929-2004). Goldsmith already had credits at CBS. But the network let him go.

Stanley Wilson’s title card (along with others) on an episode of Thriller, whose composers included Jerry Goldsmith.

Wilson wisely assigned him jobs at Revue-Universal. Some of Goldsmith’s best television work was on the studio’s 1960-62 anthology series Thriller hosted by Boris Karloff. For a 2010 home video release, extras included permitting viewers to listen to Goldsmith’s music only for episodes he scored.

Wilson (whose title was either “musical supervisor” or “music supervisor”) also brought on John Williams to work on a police drama called M Squad and the 1960-62 series Checkmate, a detective series created by Eric Ambler. M Squad (which had a theme by Count Basie) was Williams’ first scoring assignment. Checkmate featured a Williams theme. Williams was also hired by Wilson to work on the anthology show Kraft Suspense Theater.

Other notable Wilson hires included Morton Stevens, beginning with an episode of The General Electric Theater. The episode starred Sammy Davis Jr. Stevens worked for Davis as his arranger.

Wilson hired Stevens for the Davis episode of The GE Theater. That began a career switch for Stevens of scoring television shows. That included scoring the pilot for Hawaii Five-O and devising its iconic theme. Stevens also was a major composer on Thriller.

Other Wilson hires included Quincy Jones for the pilot of Ironside (resulting in the creation of another well-known theme) and Dave Grusin on a number of Universal projects. They included the 1968 television movie Prescription: Murder that introduced Lt. Columbo to television audiences.

Jon Burlingame, a journalist who has written extensively about television and film music, had a 2012 article in Variety when Universal named a street on its Southern California lot in honor of Wilson.

“Stanley Wilson Avenue connects Main Street with James Stewart Avenue on the Universal lot, not far from the now-demolished Stage 10 where its namesake conducted literally thousands of hours of music by young composers who would go on to become the biggest names in Hollywood film music,” Burlingame wrote.

On his blog, Burlingame wrote an additional tribute. “Wilson is an unsung hero in the film/TV music business.”

Wilson died in 1970 at the age of 54.