He was a Swiss-German-American film director and producer who won the Academy Award for Best Director three times, those being for Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Ben-Hur (1959), all of which also won for Best Picture. In total, he holds a record twelve nominations for the Academy Award for Best Director.
Born in Alsace, then in Germany, but later part of France, Wyler was a troublemaker in the schools of his youth. He emigrated to United States in 1921, working first for Universal Studios in New York before moving to Los Angeles. By 1925, he was the youngest director at Universal, and in 1929 he directed Hell's Heroes, Universal's first sound production filmed entirely on location. In 1936, he earned his first nomination for the Academy Award for Best Director for Dodsworth, starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton and Mary Astor, "sparking a 20-year run of almost unbroken greatness."
He helped propel a number of actors to stardom, including finding and directing Audrey Hepburn in her debut film, Roman Holiday (1953), and directing Barbra Streisand in her debut film, Funny Girl (1968), both winning Academy Awards. Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis both won their second Oscar in Wyler films, de Havilland for The Heiress (1949) and Davis for Jezebel. Davis said Wyler made her a "far, far better actress" than she had ever been, while Laurence Olivier, who received his first Oscar nomination for Wyler's Wuthering Heights (1939), credited Wyler with teaching him how to act for the screen. Wyler's three Best Picture-winning films each featured a Best Actress or Actor Oscar winner - Greer Garson in Mrs Miniver, Frederic March in The Best Years of Our Lives, and Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur. Other popular Wyler films include: The Westerner (1940) with Gary Cooper, The Letter (1940) again with Davis, Detective Story (1951) with Kirk Douglas, Friendly Persuasion (1956) with Cooper, The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck and Heston, The Children's Hour (1961) with Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner, and How to Steal a Million (1966) with Hepburn and Peter O'Toole.
Film historian Ian Freer calls Wyler a "bona fide perfectionist", whose penchant for retakes and an attempt to hone every last nuance, "became the stuff of legend." His ability to direct a string of classic literary adaptations into huge box-office and critical successes made him one of "Hollywood's most bankable moviemakers" from the 1930s to 1960s. Through his talent for staging, editing, and camera movement, he turned dynamic theatrical spaces into cinematic ones. For his work Wyler was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for career achievement, the Director's Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award and the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award.
Wyler's Swiss-born father, Leopold, started as a traveling salesman but later became a thriving haberdasher in Mulhouse. His mother, Melanie (née Auerbach; died February 13, 1955, Los Angeles, aged 77), was German-born, and a cousin of Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures. During Wyler's childhood, he attended a number of schools and developed a reputation as "something of a hellraiser", being expelled more than once for misbehavior. His mother often took him and his older brother Robert to concerts, opera, and the theatre, as well as the early cinema. Sometimes at home his family and their friends would stage amateur theatricals for personal enjoyment.
Wyler was supposed to take over the family haberdashery business in Mulhouse, France. After World War I, he spent a dismal year working in Paris at 100.000 Chemises selling shirts and ties. He was so poor that he often spent his time wandering around the Pigalle district. After realizing that Willy was not interested in the haberdashery business, his mother, Melanie, contacted her distant cousin, Carl Laemmle who owned Universal Studios, about opportunities for him.
Laemmle was in the habit of coming to Europe each year, searching for promising young men who would work in America. In 1921, Wyler, while traveling as a Swiss citizen (his father's status automatically conferred Swiss citizenship to his sons), met Laemmle who hired him to work at Universal Studios in New York. As Wyler said: "America seemed as far away as the moon." Booked onto a ship to New York with Laemmle upon his return voyage, he met a young Czech man, Paul Kohner (later the famous independent agent), aboard the same ship. Their enjoyment of the first class trip was short-lived, however, as they found they had to pay back the cost of the passage out of their $25 weekly income as messengers to Universal Pictures. After working in New York for several years, and even serving in the New York Army National Guard for a year, Wyler moved to Hollywood to become a director.
Around 1923, Wyler arrived in Los Angeles and began work on the Universal Studios lot in the swing gang, cleaning the stages and moving the sets.
By 1925 he became the youngest director on the Universal lot directing the westerns that Universal was famed for turning out.
He directed his first non-Western, the lost Anybody Here Seen Kelly?, in 1928. This was followed by his first part-talkie films, The Shakedown and The Love Trap. He proved himself an able craftsman. In 1928 he became a naturalized United States citizen. His first all-talking film, and Universal's first sound production to be filmed entirely on location, was Hell's Heroes, filmed in the Mojave Desert in 1929.
In the early 1930s Wyler directed a wide variety of films at Universal, ranging from high-profile dramas such as The Storm with Bebe Daniels, A House Divided with Walter Huston, and Counsellor at Law with John Barrymore, to comedies like Her First Mate with Zasu Pitts and The Good Fairy with Margaret Sullavan. He became well known for his insistence on multiple retakes, resulting in often award-winning and critically acclaimed performances from his actors. After leaving Universal he began a long collaboration with Samuel Goldwyn for whom he directed such classics as Dodsworth (1936) with Walter Huston, These Three (1936) with Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon, Dead End (1937) with Humphrey Bogart, Wuthering Heights (1939) with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, The Westerner (1940) with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan, The Little Foxes (1941) with Bette Davis, and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) with Myrna Loy and Fredric March. It was during this time that Wyler began his famous collaboration with cinematographer Gregg Toland. Toland and Wyler virtually created the "deep focus" style of filmmaking wherein multiple layers of action or characters could be seen in one scene, most famous being the bar scene in The Best Years of Our Lives. Toland went on to use the deep focus he mastered with Wyler when he shot Orson Welles' Citizen Kane.
Bette Davis received three Oscar nominations for her screen work under Wyler, and won her second Oscar for her performance in Wyler's 1938 film Jezebel. She told Merv Griffin in 1972 that Wyler trained her with that film to be a "far, far better actress" than she had been. She recalled a scene that was only a bare paragraph in the script, but "without a word of dialog, Willy created a scene of power and tension. This was moviemaking on the highest plane," she said. "A scene of such suspense that I never have not marveled at the direction of it." During her acceptance speech when she received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1977, she thanked him.
Laurence Olivier, whom Wyler directed in Wuthering Heights (1939) for his first Oscar nomination, credited Wyler with teaching him how to act for the screen, despite clashing with Wyler on multiple occasions. Olivier would go on to hold the record for the most nominations in the Best Actor category at nine, tied with Spencer Tracy.
In 1941, Wyler directed Mrs. Miniver, based on the 1940 novel. It starred Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. Pidgeon originally had doubts about taking on the role, until fellow actor Paul Lukas told him, "You will find working with Wyler to be the most delightful experience you ever had, and that's the way it turned out." Pidgeon received his first Oscar nomination for his role, while his co-star, Greer Garson, won her first and only Academy Award for her performance.
It was Wyler's first Academy Award for Best Director.
Between 1942 and 1945, Wyler volunteered to serve as a major in the United States Army Air Forces and directed a pair of documentaries: The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), about a Boeing B-17 and its U.S. Army Air Force crew; and Thunderbolt! (1947), highlighting a P-47 fighter-bomber squadron in the Mediterranean. Wyler filmed The Memphis Belle at great personal risk, flying over enemy territory on actual bombing missions in 1943; on one flight, Wyler lost consciousness from lack of oxygen. Wyler's associate, cinematographer Harold J. Tannenbaum, a First Lieutenant, was shot down and perished during the filming. Director Steven Spielberg describes Wyler's filming of Memphis Belle in the 2017 Netflix series, Five Came Back. Before being assigned to the Air Force, Wyler was hired to direct the documentary The Negro Soldier on African-Americans in the United States Armed Forces.
Working on Thunderbolt! Wyler was exposed to such loud noise that he passed out. When he awoke, he found he was deaf in one ear. Partial hearing with the aid of a hearing aid eventually came back years later. Wyler returned from the War a lieutenant colonel and a disabled veteran.
Returning from the War and unsure whether he could work again, Wyler turned to a subject that he knew well and directed a film which captured the mood of the nation as it turned to peace after the war, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Arguably his most personal film, Best Years drew on Wyler's own experience returning home to his family after three years on the front. The Best Years of Our Lives won the Academy Award for Best Director (Wyler's second) and Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as seven other Academy Awards.
In 1949 Wyler directed The Heiress, which earned Olivia de Havilland her second Oscar and garnered additional Oscars for Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Music. The film is considered by some to be a highlight in her career, "that could strike envy even in the most versatile and successful actress," according to one critic.
In 1951, Wyler produced and directed Kirk Douglas and Eleanor Parker in Detective Story. Lee Grant and Joseph Wiseman made their screen debuts in the film, which was nominated for four Academy Awards, including one for Grant. Critic Bosley Crowther lauded the film, describing it as "a brisk, absorbing film by producer-director William Wyler, with the help of a fine, responsive cast."
Carrie was released in 1952 starring Jennifer Jones in the title role and Laurence Olivier as Hurstwood. Eddie Albert played Charles Drouet. Carrie received two Academy Award nominations: Costume Design (Edith Head), and Best Art Direction (Hal Pereira, Roland Anderson, Emile Kuri).
During the immediate postwar period, Wyler directed a handful of critically acclaimed and influential films. Roman Holiday (1953) introduced Audrey Hepburn to American audiences in her first starring role, winning her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Wyler said of Hepburn years later, when describing truly great actresses, "In that league there's only ever been Garbo, and the other Hepburn, and maybe Bergman. It's a rare quality, but boy, do you know when you've found it." The film was an instant hit, also winning for Best Costume Design (Edith Head), and Best Writing (Dalton Trumbo). Hepburn would eventually do three movies with Wyler, who her son said was one of the most important directors in her career.
Friendly Persuasion (1956) was awarded the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the Cannes Film Festival. And in 1959, Wyler directed Ben-Hur, which won 11 Oscars, a feat unequaled until Titanic in 1997 and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King in 2003.
Ben-Hur became a great box office success. Wyler won his third Academy Award for Best Director and Charlton Heston his first and only Academy Award as its star.
Ben-Hur cost $15 million to produce but earned $47 million by the end of 1961 and $90 million worldwide. Audiences mobbed movie theaters in the months after it opened.
In 1961 he became a director for 20th Century Fox and also cast James Garner in The Children's Hour with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.
In 1968 he directed Barbra Streisand in her debut film, Funny Girl, costarring Omar Sharif, which became a huge financial success. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and like Audrey Hepburn in her first starring role, Streisand won as Best Actress, becoming the thirteenth actor to win an Oscar under his direction.
Wyler was hired to direct Patton (1970), but quit before the beginning of production in 1969. The last film Wyler directed was The Liberation of L.B. Jones, released in 1970.
Wyler was briefly married to actress Margaret Sullavan (from November 25, 1934 – March 13, 1936) and married actress Margaret "Talli" Tallichet on October 23, 1938. The couple remained together until his death; they had five children: Catherine, Judith, William Jr., Melanie and David. Catherine said during an interview that her mother played an important part in his career, often being his "gatekeeper" and his reader of scripts presented to him.
On July 24, 1981, Wyler gave an interview with his daughter, Catherine, for Directed by William Wyler, a PBS documentary about his life and career. Three days later, he died from a heart attack. He is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery.
Documentaries, videos and podcasts
Ben-Hur (1959) - IMDb
November 18, 1959
Dead End (1937) - IMDb
August 27, 1937
Dodsworth (1936) - IMDb
September 23, 1936
Friendly Persuasion (1956) - IMDb
November 25, 1956
Funny Girl (1968) - IMDb
September 19, 1968