William Wyler (1902-1981)

William Wyler
William Wyler

William Wyler will always be recognised as one of the most important and successful movie directors in the history of Hollywood. He directed many legendary movies which succeeded both in critical as well as financial terms and he dealt cleverly with some fragile and volatile temperaments, not always by treading softly. He became well known as a tireless taskmaster who insisted on retake after retake. His nickname of "Forty-Take Wyler" was well earned and did not endear him to many actors. Very few agreed to do more than a handful of movies for him, but his results speak eloquently of his methods and he directed a record fourteen Oscar winning performances.

Wyler's record of Academy Award wins and nominations is unsurpassed. John Ford with four Oscars for Best Director, is the only Director to win more than Wyler, who won three. Wyler holds the record for Academy nominations for Best Director (twelve); and he also holds the record for directing the most Oscar-nominated performances (thirty five). In addition he has the distinction of directing thirteen Best Picture nominated movies and three Best Picture Winning movies.

Wyler was above all an arch craftsman of movies. There are no obvious motifs or gimmicks to identify one of his movies. Each one can be seen as an individually crafted piece of work and each was approached with serious intent. Almost without exception Wyler's movies were popular with movie-goers, and that really is his trademark. As a Director he is undoubtedly one of the great successes of Hollywood's Golden Age and is still a substantial influence on the culture of America. He is one of the major figures in the history of movie-making.


William Wyler was born in 1902 in Alsace, then in Germany, now part of France. His parents were Jewish and his birth name was Wilhelm Weiller which he never actually legally changed. The family were comfortably off and his father had a successful haberdashery business. He also had good family connections in America as the head of Universal Studios, Carl Laemmle, was his mother's cousin. William and his older brother Robert were often taken by their mother to operatic concerts, as well as the theatre and the early cinema. His family and friends would sometimes put on amateur shows at home for their own enjoyment.

America 1920

After private schooling at Mulhouse and Lausanne, Switzerland, William showed no inclination to join the family business and he became increasingly interested in American culture. After working for a short time in Paris, he set off, aged 18 in 1920, for America. He joined Carl Laemmle's company, Universal Studios, and began work as an errand boy in their offices in New York. He spent 3 years learning the business at the less glamorous end until he was finally allowed to work on film sets and he moved to Los Angeles to continue his movie education. He was not given an easy ride and had to start as a scene shifter and eventually he was made assistant editor, working on classics like 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' in 1923 and the original 'Ben-Hur' in 1925.

Hollywood Director 1925

He was given no family privileges and had to learn as he went along but he proved an extremely adept pupil and in July, 1925 he became Universal's youngest Director at the age of 23 years. In this pre-Talkies era Universal were well known for their cheaply-made Westerns and that is where Wyler started. His first was 'The Crook Buster' in 1925 and he made thirty more similar budget Western movies over the next four years. It was an ideal learning experience for the young Director and by the time Talkies arrived he was ready and well equipped to deal with the demands of the new medium. He soon became one of Universal's most highly regarded directors and he started to spread his wings with a variety of movie genres, making 'The Love Trap' in 1929, 'Hell's Heroes' in 1930, (Universal's first all-sound movie), the tense courtroom drama, 'Counsellor at Law' in 1933, and a romantic comedy, 'The Good Fairy' in 1935.

Goldwyn Productions 1935

In 1935 Wyler's 'Uncle' Carl Laemmle was forced to sell Universal Studios which was having serious financial problems. This was to help Wyler's career development as he found himself free for the first time, from the restraints of family and studio, and he began to establish himself as a major Hollywood director when he began making films for independent producer Sam Goldwyn. He shared with Goldwyn a vision of making films of the highest quality, often themed on classical literature. Wyler was also able to have more say in choosing his stars and film technicians and he created fruitful partnerships with, for instance Bette Davis, and cinematographer, Greg Toland. His work during the next two decades was the most creative of his career and helped to earn Wyler his international reputation as a creator of intelligent, well-crafted movies which offered serious thematic content and cinematic artistry and which also genuinely entertained the audience.

Wyler's new, independent existence began in 1936 with the movie 'These Three' in 1936, adapted from 'The Children's Hour', a lesbian-themed play by Lillian Hellman and starring Merle Oberon in one of her most moving roles. However, it was 'Dodsworth', also made in 1936, that made the movie critics sit up and take notice of the new young director. The movie takes a sober and realistic look at a failing marriage and features a probing camera style and long takes which would become a Wyler trademark. The climax of the film is played, uniquely, as an over-the-shoulder shot, again to become a Wyler trademark. Wyler was constantly maintaining a healthy balance between his desire and need to experiment with film-making techniques and the requirements of the actors and the plot.

Wyler's career reached a creative peak over the next decade and he was responsible for a succession of uniquely crafted, high quality pictures such as 'Dead End' in 1937, 'Jezebel' in 1938, 'Wuthering Heights' in 1939, 'The Westerner' in the following year, and 'The Letter', and 'The Little Foxes' in 1941 all of which, amazingly, were nominated for Best Picture. Finally, in 1942 Wyler won the coveted Best Director Oscar, as well as Best Picture award, for 'Mrs Miniver', a World War II propaganda film starring Greer Garson, set in wartime England, and designed to bolster US support for the war.

World War II 1942

When America entered the war Wyler joined the US Army Air Services with the rank of major. During his service he made two powerful propaganda movies, for the Air Force 'The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress' in 1944 and in the same year, a Navy documentary, 'The Fighting Lady', an examination of life aboard an American aircraft carrier.

Post War Career

After the war, in 1946 came Wyler's second Oscar winning movie and regarded by many as one of his best works, 'The Best Years of Our Lives'. In it he confronts the problems experienced by many servicemen and their families as they get used to home life after years of separation. As with 'Mrs Miniver, the movie won the Best Picture award as well as Best Director.

Wyler's reputation continued to grow and his output of intelligent and successful movies continued unabated. 'The Heiress' in 1949, adapted from Henry James's novel "Washington Square", won Olivia de Havilland her second Oscar, and then Wyler switched genres completely with the popular and successful romantic comedy 'Roman Holiday' in 1953, in which Audrey Hepburn, fresh from the London stage, and in her first leading movie role, won a Best Actress Oscar.

After 'The Desperate Hours' in 1955 Wyler made 'Friendly Persuasion' the following year, which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Then in 1958 he made a Western big screen epic, 'The Big Country', which won Burl Ives an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

'Ben Hur'1959

He continued in the epic style with his next picture in 1959, this time of truly Biblical proportions. 'Ben-Hur' was a record-breaker in many ways. It was big budget -around $15 million - and was 6 years in preparation. When shooting started Wyler was in charge of hundreds of crew members and a small army of extras, more than any previous film. It won eleven Oscars in total, including Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Leading Actor for Heston. This was a record which remained unequalled until 'Titanic' in 1997 which also won eleven Academy awards. Wyler created a monumental dramatic masterpiece which although inevitably dated is a magnificent piece of work and is still entertaining today.

Later Career

After 'Ben-Hur' Wyler, now approaching his sixties directed only 5 more movies. In 1961 he remade 'These Three' as The Children's Hour', a more open version of Lillian Hellman's lesbian-themed play, which he had previously filmed in 1936. 'The Collector' in 1965 and then 'Funny Girl' in 1968 were both hits in different genres completely. In 1970 Wyler's last film, 'The Liberation of L.B. Jones' he tackled the theme of racial prejudice in a town in the American south.

Wyler had health problems during the 1970's which prevented him from taking on any more work and he spent his time travelling the world with his wife. In 1976 he was awarded the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, only the fourth recipient, succeeding John Ford, James Cagney and Orson Welles.


During filming of 'The Good Fairy' Wyler met the actress Margaret Sullavan whom he married in 1934. The marriage ended in divorce just 15 months later. He married another actress, Margaret Tallichet, in 1938. The marriage proved to be a happy one and they went on to have five children.

Surprisingly, Wyler was notoriously inarticulate when giving instructions to his actors. Instead of telling them what was required he preferred to constantly repeat his takes, giving rise to his nickname, "Forty-Take Wyler". Some actors objected to the constant repetition and Bette Davis once stormed off set and did not return for two weeks. But his methods brought rewards. Wyler felt that an angry actor was an honest actor and gave a more convincing performance. He never allowed an individual performance to be more important than or distract from the telling of the story. He worked hard himself and he expected no less from his actors, and he normally rehearsed them for two weeks before filming began. It certainly brought results and Wyler holds the record for having guided the most Oscar-nominated performances (thirty-five) and the most Oscar-winning performances (fourteen).

William Wyler died from a heart attack in July 1981, in Beverly Hills, California, one of the most honored and respected members of the Hollywood movie-making fraternity. He is interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Glendale, California.


There is an amazing variety of genres represented by Wyler movies. No matter what type of movie he was making, he still focused all his movie-making craft on the job he was doing. So 'Wuthering Heights' and 'Dodsworth' were straight adaptations from classical novels, 'Roman Holiday' was a light romance, 'The Collector' a thriller, 'Funny Girl' a comedy, and 'Ben-Hur' a biblical epic. All different genres and all successes - both as artistic creations and in box-office takings. This was Wyler's astonishing feat, the ability to successfully combine cinematic craftsmanship with hard-headed financial necessities.

Wyler created a wealth of important films which combined technical innovation, film craft, great acting, and thematic integrity into a package which was still entertaining and commercially successful. There is no doubt that, along with his contemporaries, John Ford and Orson Welles, William Wyler stands at the very top of the list of the greatest and most influential of Hollywood directors.

William Wyler Academy Awards

Three Wins:
Best Director ... Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Best Director ... The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Best Director ... Ben-Hur (1959)

Eleven Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Director ... Dodsworth (1936)
Best Director ... Wuthering Heights (1939)
Best Director ... The Letter (1940)
Best Director ... The Little Foxes (1941)
Best Director ... The Heiress (1949)
Best Director ... Detective Story (1951)
Best Director ... Roman Holiday (1953)
Best Picture ... Roman Holiday (1953)
Best Director ... Friendly Persuasion (1956)
Best Picture ... Friendly Persuasion (1956>
Best Director ... The Collector (1965)

One Honorary Award:
Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award (1966)

William Wyler Filmography

The Crook Buster (short)
The Gunless Bad Man (short)
Ridin' for Love (short)
The Fire Barrier (short)
Don't Shoot (short)
The Pinnacle Rider (short)
Martin of the Mounted (short)
Lazy Lightning
The Stolen Ranch
The Two Fister (short)
Kelcy Gets His Man (short)
Tenderfoot Courage (short)
The Silent Partner (short)
Blazing Days
Shooting Straight
Galloping Justice (short)
The Haunted Homestead (short)
Hard Fists
The Lone Star (short)
The Ore Raiders (short)
The Home Trail (short)
Gun Justice (short)
The Phantom Outlaw (short)
The Square Shooter (short)
The Horse Trader (short)
Daze of the West (short)
The Border Cavalier
Desert Dust
Thunder Riders
Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?
The Shakedown
The Love Trap
Hell's Heroes
The Storm
A House Divided
Tom Brown of Culver
Her First Mate
Counsellor at Law
The Good Fairy
The Gay Deception
Barbary Coast (uncredited)
These Three
Come and Get It
Dead End

The Cowboy and the Lady (uncredited)