William Wyler Overview:

Legendary director, William Wyler, was born Wilhelm Weiller on Jul 1, 1902 in Mülhausen, Alsace. Wyler died at the age of 79 on Jul 27, 1981 in Los Angeles, CA and was laid to rest in Forest Lawn (Glendale) Cemetery in Los Angeles, CA.

Early Life

William Wyler was born Willy Wyler on July 1st, 1902 in the Mulhouse, Alsace of the then-German Empire. His father, Leopold, was a traveling dry goods merchant who eventually developed his own business while his mother, Melanie, remained at home and took care of the young Wyler. As child he gained a bit of reputation as a wild-child and was expelled from multiple schools due to his rebellious behavior. Despite his restless nature, Wyler's mother made sure to install him with the virtues of culture exposing he and his brother to opera, theatre, and the cinema. She even later sent him the Paris Conservatoire to study music. It was also during this time that Wyler began to develop a strong appreciation for American arts and culture. Although Willy was originally groomed to take over the family business, Leopold Wyler soon found his son had no head for business but, rather, a strong appreciation for the arts. After this realization, William was put into contact with his mother's cousin, Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures. He offered the 18-year old Wyler an opportunity to work in America and on September 10th, 1920 he set sail for the new world. He was immediately given work at Universal Studios New York diversion as a shipping clerk. Two year he headed west to Hollywood in hopes of more opportunity.

Early Career

Upon his arrival in Tinsel Town in 1923, Wyler was immediately put to work as an errand boy and general laborer. He soon worked his ways through the ranks to become a second assistant director with is heart set on becoming a director. It wouldn't take him long to get his wish and in 1925 he directed his first film, a short called The Crook Buster. At just 23 years old he was youngest director on the Universal lot. He soon began a 5-year long directing apprentice with Universal "B" unit, churning over 30 low-budget, westerns such as Blazing Days, Hard Fists, The Home Trail and Thunder Riders. In 1928 he directed his first non-western Anybody Here Seen Kelly?, followed by his first talkie The Shakedown. That same year he also became a naturalized citizen of the United States.  In 1929 directed his first "A" picture Hell's Heroes. The film was also Universals first talkie to be shot outside a studio setting and was a hit both critically and financially, helping to build his reputation as a director.

Move to Goldwyn

At the star of the Great Depression Universal studios under the leadership of the Laemmle family began to falter in large thanks to the blatant nepotism that ran through the company. At one point the Studio had over 70 members of the Laemmle family on the payroll, including Wyler. In 1935 the family was forced to sell the company and with that Wyler left. Thanks to the reputation he had built at Universal, Wyler was approached by producer Samuel Goldwyn and the two began a long lasting, productive and often times rocky professional relationship. In 1936 they began the first of their many collaborations with adaptation of the Lillian Hellman play These Three. Thanks to heavy censorship rules put forth by the Hayes Code, the films underlying themes of homosexuality where replaced with a more palpable heterosexual love triangle. The next year he directed the drama Dodsworth starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton and Mary Astor. The film centers on a broken marriage and personal fall-outs that come with its inevitable decay. Dodsworth was massive critical hit with Wyler receiving much of the praise with publications such as the Times stating the film was "directed with a proper understanding of its values by William Wyler." It would go on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Wyler's first nomination for Best Director and Best Picture, the first of seven Wyler would direct to receive that honor. During this time, Wyler also began another long lasting and fruitful professional relationship with cinematographer Gregg Toland, who developed a deep-focus camera technique that greatly affected the overall style of much of Wyler's films.

In 1937 Wyler directed the crime-drama Dead End starring Humphrey Bogart and Joel McCrea. The movie is largely remembered for introducing The Dead End Kids. In 1938 he took a step away from Goldwyn to direct the Warner Brothers produced Jezebel starring Bette Davis and Henry Fonda. The film tells the story of spoiled, rich southern belle, Julie Marsden, whose unfettered behaviors costs her the man she hoped to marry. It was during this time that Wyler truly began to earn his nickname "90-take Wyler," due to his incredibly perfectionist tendencies, once forcing Henry Fonda to do over 40 takes of a single scene. His perfectionism proved well worth the time, tension and money as the film went on to be a massive hit, gaining five Oscar nominations including one win for Best Actress awarded to Bette Davis. Behind the scenes Wyler and Davis began a tempestuous on and off relationship that would last throughout the 1940s.

The 1940s and WWII

The start of the new decade would bring two more collaborations with Davis. The first was the Warner Brothers produced The Letter. The picture tells the story of Leslie Crosbie, the wife of a rubber plantation manager in Malaya who shoots a man, claiming self-defense while the natives suspect otherwise. The film was huge critical hit and was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Picture. The next year he teamed with Davis again, this time for the big screen adaption of the Lillian Hellman play The Little Foxes. The film focuses on the cold and calculating aristocratic Regina Giddens, played by Davis, as she tries to control both her crippled husband and her own family to gain control of both families fortunes. Once again, Wyler managed to produce a hit and the film was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Picture. Wyler would leave the ceremony empty handed but the next year, however, would be a different story.

In 1942 Wyler directed the WWII civic propaganda piece Mrs. Miniver for MGM. The film, starring Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, and Teresa Wright, tells the story of a traditional British family as they struggle survive and persevere during the early months of the World War II. The film was a major hit, making almost 9 million at the box-office and became the most profitable picture of the year. The film also went on to gain 12 Academy Award nominations and win six of them including Best Supporting Actress, Best Actress, Best Picture and a Best Director statue for Wyler. Soon after, Wyler joined the war effort by serving in the United States Army Air Force. He directed the documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. The doc tells of the story of the final mission of a Boeing B-17 and it's crew. During it's filming Wyler put himself at great risk as he flew over enemy territory in order to get the best possible footage he could manage. Another documentary he directed during his time in the military, The Fighting Lady would go on to win Best Documentary at the 1945 Academy Awards. By the end of his tour "over-there" Wyler had lost the use of one ear due to constant noise pollution of the aircrafts he traveled in.

Post WWII Career

After returning from the war, Wyler began work on his next film, The Best Years of Our Lives. The picture chronicles the experience of three U.S veterans returning to civilian life after their tours in WWII. Because of his own experience in war, Wyler was determined to infuse the film with as much realism as possible. He asked the main actors to buy their owns clothes, keeping them grounded in the connection to everyday life instead losing themselves in the glamour of costumes. He also had life-sized sets constructed, limiting the possibilities for camera movement and thus creating a more intimate and naturalistic look. On the technical side of the film Wyler once again utilized cinematographer Gregg Toland's  mastery of the deep focus lens, capturing many scenes with two minute longs takes. The film was an incredible hit, raking in over 20 million dollars at the box-office while at once becoming one of the best-reviewed movies of the year. It went on to gain nine Academy Awards, winning eight including Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture.

In 1949 he directed another hit film, The Heiress, helping Olivia de Havilland to win her second Best Actress Oscar. He followed that up with fairly forgettable films, 1951's Detective Story and 1952's Carrie. In 1953 he directed the romantic comedy Roman Holiday starring Gregory Peck while introducing Audrey Hepburn to American Audiences. The film was huge success and once again Wyler directed another Best Actress performance, this time for Hepburn. He continued to direct successful films through the 1950s such as The Desperate Hours and Friendly Persuasion but his biggest hit by far 1959's historical epic Ben-Hur. The film had a massive budget of 15 million dollars, an almost unheard of amount at the time. The expense proved well invested as the picture was massive hit, making almost 150 million at the box office and created one of the most memorable/influential action sequences of all time: the chariot race. The picture would go on to win a record 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor.

Later Career and Life

After the release of Ben-Hur Wyler's career began to slow. Throughout the early and mid-1960's he still managed to direct successful films such as The Children's Hour, The Collects, and How to Steal a Million. His biggest hit of the decade came with his penultimate film, Funny Girl. The picture was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture and once again Wyler would direct an Academy Award winning performance when Barbra Streisand went home with the 1968 Academy Award. In 1970 he released his last film The Liberation of L.B. Jones. The film was a flop at the box office and the trade papers. Soon after, Wyler retired from filmmaking. A Few years later, in 1976, he received the prestigious Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. Although he considered coming out of retirement, his poor health prevented him from doing so. William Wyler died on July 27th, 1981 from a massive heart attack. He was 79 years old. 

(Source: article by Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub).



William Wyler was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning three for Best Director for Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives and Ben-Hur in 1942, 1946 and 1959 respectively. He also won one Honorary Award in 1965 William Wyler .

Academy Awards

YearAwardFilm nameRoleResult
1936Best DirectorDodsworth (1936)N/ANominated
1939Best DirectorWuthering Heights (1939)N/ANominated
1940Best DirectorThe Letter (1940)N/ANominated
1941Best DirectorThe Little Foxes (1941)N/ANominated
1942Best DirectorMrs. Miniver (1942)N/AWon
1946Best DirectorThe Best Years of Our Lives (1946)N/AWon
1949Best DirectorThe Heiress (1949)N/ANominated
1951Best DirectorDetective Story (1951)N/ANominated
1953Best DirectorRoman Holiday (1953)N/ANominated
1956Best DirectorFriendly Persuasion (1956)N/ANominated
1959Best DirectorBen-Hur (1959)N/AWon
1965Best DirectorThe Collector (1965)N/ANominated

Academy Awards (Honorary Oscars)



He was honored with one star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category of Motion Pictures.

BlogHub Articles:

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Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton star in ’s production of “Dodsworth” Dodsworth (1936) is an American drama film directed by , and starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Paul Lukas, Mary Astor, and David Niven. The screenplay by Sidney Howard is ba... Read full article

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on Mar 8, 2020 From The Stop Button

If you tilt to just the right angle, for a while you can see Dead End as the tale of three people from a poor neighborhood and how life has worked out for them as they got closer to their thirties. Humphrey Bogart grew from a ?not too bad? young punk to a public enemy number one, infamous for killin... Read full article

The Heiress (1949, )

By Andrew Wickliffe on Jul 1, 2019 From The Stop Button

My favorite moment in The Heiress is when Olivia de Havilland has a slight tremor, watching someone walk away after she?s just told them off. It?s this fantastic glimpse into her character. The film has something of a double twist ending, so it?s going to be hard to talk around various spoilers but ... Read full article

The Heiress (1949, )

By Andrew Wickliffe on Jul 1, 2019 From The Stop Button

My favorite moment in The Heiress is when Olivia de Havilland has a slight tremor, watching someone walk away after she?s just told them off. It?s this fantastic glimpse into her character. The film has something of a double twist ending, so it?s going to be hard to talk around various spoilers but ... Read full article

The Heiress (1949, )

on Jul 1, 2019 From The Stop Button

My favorite moment in The Heiress is when Olivia de Havilland has a slight tremor, watching someone walk away after she?s just told them off. It?s this fantastic glimpse into her character. The film has something of a double twist ending, so it?s going to be hard to talk around various spoilers but ... Read full article

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William Wyler on the
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William Wyler Facts
Biography in: John Wakeman, editor. "World Film Directors, Volume One, 1890-1945". Pages 1220-1233. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1987.

Biography in: "The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives". Volume One, 1981-1985, pages 898-900. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1998.

Brother-in-law of Cathy O'Donnell.

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