James Horner, the Oscar-winning composer who crafted iconic scores for films like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Braveheart, and Avatar, died Monday in a private plane crash in California. He was 61.
Born in Los Angeles, Horner grew up around movies as the son of set designer Harry Horner, and music came to him at a very early age. In his early years, he studied at the Royal College of Music in London before returning to LA to earn a bachelor’s degree at USC, followed by doctorate work and teaching at UCLA.
His career as a composer began in the late ‘70s, scoring short films for the American Film Institute before connecting with legendary producer Roger Corman. After working on several Corman productions, including Battle Beyond the Stars, he crafted the now-iconic music for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, launching a string of hits that would continue for decades.
Horner was a composer of amazing versatility, able to deliver anthemic adventure themes, moody horror melodies, and moving romantic symphonies with equal precision, passion, and power. Wrath of Khan was followed in the '80s by hits like 48 Hrs., Cocoon, Commando, Aliens, An American Tail, Field of Dreams, and more. Horner could’ve stopped scoring films in 1990 and still been a legend in his field, but it turns out he was only getting warmed up.
Horner’s early '90s credits include acclaimed films Searching for Bobby Fischer, The Pelican Brief, and Legends of the Fall. In 1995, he composed two Oscar-nominated scores in the same year, for Apollo 13 and Braveheart. Then, in 1997, came Titanic. Horner’s work on James Cameron’s romantic megahit earned him two Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, along with a Golden Globe and a Grammy for the impossibly successful “My Heart Will Go On,” which became a radio hit as well as one of the most memorable movie love themes of all time.
Titanic rocketed to the top of the box office and stayed there. It was the highest-grossing movie ever made until 2009, when Avatar — a film Horner also scored — topped it. That’s right, the two biggest movies ever were scored by the same guy, and he wasn’t even done yet.
Other hits in Horner’s more than 100 film credits include The Missing, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Mask of Zorro, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. He was a favorite of legendary directors like Ron Howard, James Cameron, and Wolfgang Petersen, and crafted incredible music through five different decades. He was one of the absolute greats, and the movies are poorer for having lost him.