William Wyler Profile
* Titles in Bold Type Will Air on TCM
Born Wilhelm Weiller in 1902 in the province of Alsace (then part of Germany), he emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 18 to take a job at Universal Pictures offered by his mother's cousin, studio head Carl Laemmle. He worked his way up from errand boy to a director of low-budget Westerns, making his first "A" film, the well-received Hell's Heroes, in 1930. One of his films for Universal was The Good Fairy (1935), a comedy adapted from a Ferenc Molnár play and starring Wyler's first wife, Margaret Sullavan. (His second marriage, to Margaret Tallichet, lasted from 1938 until his death in 1981.)
Wyler's fabled association with independent producer Samuel Goldwyn began with These Three (1936), an adaptation of a Lillian Hellman play that Wyler would direct again in 1961 under its original title, The Children's Hour. In the remake, he also restored the stage drama's theme of latent lesbianism between two teachers (Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn).
Wyler's early Oscar® nominations were received for Dodsworth (1936), Wuthering Heights (1939), The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941). The latter two films starred Bette Davis, who enjoyed a tempestuous affair with Wyler and delivered some of her most vivid performances under his direction. Wyler's MGM wartime hit Mrs. Miniver won Oscar®s for Best Picture and Actress (Greer Garson) in addition to Wyler's own. Also during WWII, Wyler served as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps and made documentaries including the Oscar®-winning The Fighting Lady (1944). In his final collaboration with Goldwyn, Wyler created another Oscar® winner in the hugely successful The Best Years of Our Lives, a study of servicemen adjusting to civilian life after the war.
Wyler's triumphs of the 1950s included introducing Audrey Hepburn in her effervescent, Oscar®-winning starring debut in Roman Holiday (1953); and his masterful handling of MGM's lavish Biblical spectacle Ben-Hur (1959), which won a record-setting eleven Oscars®s including Wyler's and one as Best Picture.
In addition to The Children's Hour, Wyler's films of the 1960s included the well-reviewed The Collector (1965) and Funny Girl (1968), with Barbra Streisand repeating Audrey Hepburn's feat of winning an Oscar® for a stunning star debut. Wyler's final film was The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), a study of racial prejudice that was released during a revolutionary period for film, when the director's old-style craftsmanship was less respected. Wyler, who had five children, died of a heart attack in 1981.
by Roger Fristoe