William Wyler, Oscar-winning director
William Wyler was born July 1, 1902 in Mulhouse, France, in the region of Alsace. The nephew of Carl Laemmle, then head of Universal Studios, Wyler got a job as a cameraman at the company in 1925, and by 1926 was directing B-movie westerns with titles such as The Stolen Ranch and Blazing Days
Working on cheapie westerns was beneath Wyler, but he quickly learned his way around the studio, and by 1931 he had gotten a job helming A House Divided. From there he directed a number of successful films for the studio, including The Love Trap and The Good Fairy, both based on Preston Sturges scripts.
In 1935, he left Universal and signed a deal with the famed producer Samuel Goldwyn. Over the years, he and Goldwyn would team up to make some of the most successful movies of pre-war Hollywood, including Jezebel with Bette Davis (with whom he had a long and ultimately doomed affair), Wuthering Heights with the great Laurence Olivier, and Dodsworth with Walter Huston, for which he was nominated for his first Best Director Oscar. All told, William received 12 Best Director nominations, winning three times.
Wyler, who had never acted in his life, was notoriously hard on his actors when making films, sometimes demanding 30 or 40 takes for a scene. This caused no small amount of irritation among his leads, including Davis, who walked off the set of Jezebel for two weeks because of Wyler, and her co-star Henry Fonda, who after making the film never worked with Wyler again. When asked why he tortured his actors so, Wyler replied casually, "Because I am paid to get the shots that I want, and I won't give up until I get them." Still, Wyler's habits seemed to pay off for his actors: his movies received over 30 Oscar nominations for acting.
When World War II broke out, Wyler eagerly signed up with US Air Corps to shoot footage and for the war cause. From 1942 to 1943 he participated in several bombing raids over France and Germany aboard B-17 bombers. On his last flight aboard the famed Memphis Belle, he allegedly asked the pilot if he could fly any closer to the enemy planes so he could better shots! Upon his return to England, he was introduced to the King and Queen before heading home to Hollywood.
At the same time, he made two of his most important movies, 1942's Mrs. Miniver, a tale about the sacrifices of war and 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives, about a soldier returning home from the war. Both movies won Best Picture and cemented Wyler's status as one of Hollywood's top directors.
Throughout the 1950s he continued to direct stellar pictures. He discovered Audrey Hepburn for his breezy 1952 romantic comedy Roman Holiday; he gave life to Joseph Hayes' jailbreak thriller The Desperate Hours with Humphrey Bogart and frequent co-worker Fredric March; and he earned his third Best Picture and Best Director awards for his Roman epic Ben Hur. The chariot scene from that movie has been constantly rated as one of the best pieces of film in American cinematic history.
Wyler slowed down considerably in the 1960s, directing only three movies: 1965's The Collector, for which he received his 12th and final Best Director nomination; 1966's caper classic How to Steal A Million; and 1968's Funny Girl, which was the debut film of singing sensation Barbra Streisand. In 1965 he was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy, and in 1969 he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The venerable director passed away July 27, 1981, in L.A. of a heart attack. He was 79.