Few film directors demonstrated the depth, range, longevity, and sensitivity that William Wyler served up on the American silver screen over his decades-long career. Having made a number of silent pictures in the 1920s, Wyler emerged in the talkie era as a director of respectable adaptations of plays and literary works like "These Three" (1936) and "Come and Get It" (1936). But it was his collaboration with actress Bette Davis - which was punctuated by an on-again, off-again romance - that elevated his career to the next level, starting with "Jezebel" (1938). He went on to earn Academy Award nominations for "Wuthering Heights" (1939), "The Letter" (1941) and "The Little Foxes" (1941), before winning his first Oscar for "Mrs. Miniver" (1942). Following a brief sojourn to Europe to film "The Memphis Belle" (1944) for the war effort, Wyler earned greater acclaim for with "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) and "The Heiress" (1949) before embarking on a string of well-received genre films, covering film noir, Westerns and romantic comedy. He had his grandest achievement with "Ben-Hur" (1959), an epic in every sense of the word that earned 11 Academy Awards. Wyler wound down his career in the next decade, helming hits like "How to Steal a Million" (1966) and "Funny Girl" (1968) before calling it a career in 1970. When he did, Wyler had cemented his place as a legendary director whose greatness spanned decades.
Born on July 1, 1902 in Mulhausen, Germany, Wyler was raised by his father, Leopold, a dry goods merchant, and his mother, who was a cousin of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle. A wayward child who was expelled from a number of schools for bad behavior, Wyler was exposed to opera and the theater through his mother, and studied music for several months at the Paris Conservatoire. He prepared himself to follow in his father's footsteps and enter the haberdashery business, but a meeting with Laemmle changed his course. In 1920, Wyler moved to the United States and began working as a shipping clerk at Universal Studios in New York. After deciding to become a director, he moved to Los Angeles and worked various odd jobs on set before being hired on by an assistant director. He was soon offered the chance to cut his directorial teeth on low-budget Westerns and made his debut with "The Crook Buster" (1925). He went on to direct dozens of two-reel Westerns, as well as several that were feature-length, with titles that included "Ridin' for Love" (1926), "The Two Fister" (1927), "Tenderfoot Courage" (1927), "Galloping Justice" (1927) and "Desert Dust" (1927). Wyler directed his first comedy, "Anybody Here Seen Kelly?" (1928), while receiving his United States citizenship that same year.
Over the next decade Wyler built a reputation as a director of popular and respectable film adaptations of classic literary works and contemporary theater. In 1936, he signed with Samuel Goldwyn Productions and established a working relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman. They reworked her controversial Broadway drama, "The Children's Hour," into a sensitive, albeit sanitized film, "These Three" (1936), starring Joel McCrea. At the time, Wyler also started working with cameraman Gregg Toland, who would develop the deep-focus technique that would greatly enhance his films. Their collaboration began with the Frances Farmer drama "Come and Get It" (1936), and continued with the gangster drama "Dead End" (1937), which featured a young Humphrey Bogart as New York mobster, Baby Face Martin. Wyler next directed Bette Davis in her Oscar-winning performance as a fiery Southern belle in "Jezebel" (1938). Off the screen, Wyler - who by this time was divorced from his first wife, actress Margaret Sullivan - embarked on an on-again, off-again romance with the tempestuous Davis, with the actress once declaring him the love of his life.
Wyler embarked on an amazing string of acclaimed hits that continued with "Wuthering Heights" (1939), a stunning adaptation of Emile Brontë's romantic novel starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon that earned him nominations for Best Director and Best Picture. He was Oscar-nominated again with "The Letter" (1940), a brooding melodrama about a coldly calculating woman (Bette Davis) whose story about why she shot and killed a man (David Newell) is increasingly questioned. Wyler next directed "The Little Foxes" (1941), which focused on a conniving, turn-of-the-century aristocrat (Davis), who stops at nothing to take control of a profitable cotton mill. Once again, the film earned nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, but Wyler went home empty handed. The opposite was true with "Mrs. Miniver" (1942), an uplifting tale of a British family's fortitude in the face of the hardships of WWII that earned six Academy Awards, including for Best Picture and Best Director. Meanwhile, like most of Hollywood, Wyler contributed to the war effort, directing the documentary "The Memphis Belle" (1944), which chronicled the final mission of the famed B-17 Flying Fortress - the first-ever heavy bomber to complete over 25 missions in the European theater.
Wyler's time with the U.S. Army Air Force was fraught with danger, since he flew actual combat missions in order to gather footage. Over time, he lost his hearing due to the incessant rumble of the aircraft's engines. Following the war he ended his long association with Goldwyn on an exceptionally high note with "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946), which starred Fredric March, Myrna Loy and Dana Andrews. A story of three returning American war veterans, the drama won Wyler his second Oscar for Best Director and proved to be one of the top box office earners of the decade. In 1947, he rallied to counteract the stinging accusations of the Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee investigations of Hollywood by helping to form - along with John Huston and Phillip Dunne - the Committee for the First Amendment. The next year, he and fellow directors Frank Capra, George Stevens and Samuel Briskin formed their own production company, Liberty Films, which was later taken over by Paramount Pictures.
Because their production company was taken into the Paramount fold, Wyler began another exclusive association with a major studio that lasted for the first half of the 1950s. He directed Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift in the widely hailed drama, "The Heiress" (1949), which once again put Wyler in Oscar contention again, marking an end to arguably one of the most acclaimed decades of any director's career. In the 1950s, Wyler's work embraced several genres while giving him opportunity to work with the day's top actors. He helmed a film noir with "Detective Story" (1951), starring Kirk Douglas and Eleanor Park; the melodrama "Carrie" (1952), reuniting him with Laurence Olivier; a romantic comedy with "Roman Holiday" (1953), which paired Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck; and another film noir, "The Desperate Hours" (1955), with an ailing Humphrey Bogart and Frederic March. After directing Gary Cooper as a Quaker who must reconcile his opposition to violence when the Civil War breaks out in "Friendly Persuasion" (1956), Wyler helmed "The Big Country" (1958), an often underappreciated entry into the Western canon that starred Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons and Charlton Heston.
It was with Heston that Wyler directed his grandest picture, "Ben-Hur" (1959), a spectacular Biblical epic that followed the tale of a Jewish prince (Heston) in the time of Christ, who refuses to help a childhood friend round up dissidents for the Romans, leading to enslavement on a galley ship. But when the ship sinks and he saves the life of the captain, the prince regains prominence while never letting go of wanting to exact revenge against his former friend. An epic of grand scale and stature, "Ben-Hur" featured a stunning chariot race that became a legendary cinematic moment in the annals of Hollywood history. "Ben-Hur" made further history by becoming the first movie to win 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Wyler's third statue for Best Director. Having achieved his greatest accomplishment, it was no surprise that Wyler had a hard time climbing such summits again, though he did receive warm reviews for the drama "The Children's Hour" (1961), with Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner, and "The Collector" (1965), a thriller starring Terrence Stamp as a recluse who kidnaps the girl of his dream (Samantha Eggar) after she rebuffs his romantic advances.
By this time, Wyler had long cemented his status as a legendary director, though his output in the 1960s slowed considerably. He teamed with Audrey Hepburn for what turned out to be the final time with the heist comedy, "How to Steal a Million" (1966), which starred the popular actress as a young woman who enlists the help of a private detective (Peter O'Toole) to recover a phony painting sold by her father (Hugh Griffith) to a Paris museum. An aging Wyler next directed Barbra Streisand in her famed Oscar-winning role as Broadway star Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl" (1968). Her electric performance - which was widely hailed from all corners - overshadowed Wyler's direction, though it no doubt owed something to the director's calls. His last film, "The Liberation of L.B. Jones" (1970), proved to be a critical and box-office disappointment and Wyler retired shortly thereafter. In 1976, he became the third recipient of the prestigious Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, only to slip back into retirement due to poor health. On July 27, 1981, Wyler died from a heart attack just three days after granting daughter, producer Catherine Wyler, an on-camera interview for the PBS documentary, "Directed by William Wyler." He was 79 years old and left a widow of third wife, Margaret Tallichet, whom he had married in 1938.