Billy Wilder (1906–2002)Writer | Director | Producer

Date of Birth 22 June 1906, Sucha, Galicia, Austria-Hungary [now Sucha Beskidzka, Malopolskie, Poland]
Date of Death 27 March 2002, West Los Angeles, California, USA  (pneumonia)
Birth Name Samuel Wilder
Nickname The Viennese Pixie
Height 5' 11" (1.8 m)

Originally planning to become a lawyer, Billy Wilder abandoned that career in favor of working as a reporter for a Viennese newspaper, using this experience to move to Berlin, where he worked for the city's largest tabloid. He broke into films as a screenwriter in 1929, and wrote scripts for many German films until Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Wilder immediately realized his Jewish ancestry would cause problems, so he emigrated to Paris, then the US. Although he spoke no English when he arrived in Hollywood, Wilder was a fast learner, and thanks to contacts such as Peter Lorre (with whom he shared an apartment), he was able to break into American films. His partnership with Charles Brackett started in 1938 and the team was responsible for writing some of Hollywood's classic comedies, including Ninotchka (1939) and Ball of Fire (1941). The partnership expanded into a producer-director one in 1942, with Brackett producing, and the two turned out such classics as Five Graves to Cairo (1943), The Lost Weekend (1945) (Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) (Oscars for Best Screenplay), after which the partnership dissolved. (Wilder had already made one film, Double Indemnity (1944) without Brackett, as the latter had refused to work on a film he felt dealt with such disreputable characters.) Wilder's subsequent self-produced films would become more caustic and cynical, notably Ace in the Hole (1951), though he also produced such sublime comedies as Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960) (which won him Best Picture and Director Oscars). He retired in 1981.

The second of two sons, his father ran a chain of railway station cafes. As a youth he was obsessed with everything American. encouraged by his mother he enrolled as a law student at the University of Vienna but quit after 3 months to be a writer on a magazine which although poorly paid it gave him a great amount of experience interviewing such as Richard Strauss and Sigmund Freud. In 1926 he worked as an interpreter for jazz band leader Paul Whiteman on a European tour which ended in Berlin. There he became a freelance journalist mixing with the show business set and becoming friendly with Marlene Dietrich a then small part actress. a fast and prolific writer he got introduced to prominent figures in the growing German film industry resulting in him being hired as a ghost writer writing scripts for established writers who didn't have time to meet their contractual obligations. His break came when he worked on 'People on Sunday', a modest film directed by Robert Siodmak, assistant cameraman Fred Zinneman and co director Edgar Ulmer who would all later become prominent in the industry. When Hitler came to power Billy, a Jew, moved to Paris where he directed his first film, 'Mauvaise Graine' (Bad Seed) starring a 17 year old Danielle Darieux. Sending a script to Joe May, a former friend who was now a producer at Columbia Studios resulted in a ticket to the States and a promise of work. A continual rejection of his scripts put him on the bread line for awhile and then he was teamed with writer Charles Brackett to write a script for 'Bluebeard's Eighth Wife' which was followed by such as 'Ninotchka' 'Hold Back the Dawn' and 'Ball of Fire'. Billy wanted to direct, mainly to protect his scripts which other directors had ruined. His chance came with 'The Major and the Minor' with Ginger Rogers. After a few more scripts with Charles which Billy directed and Charles produced Billy collaborated with Raymond Chandler on 'Double Indemnity' - the house used as Barbara Stanwyck's character's home still stands today at 6301 Quebec Drive. Billy rejoined Charles for 'the Lost weekend' which won Oscars for Screenplay, director, film and actor (Ray Milland). At the end of ww11 Billy returned to Germany as a colonel in the U.S. Army's Psychological warfare Division with the task of salvaging the German film industry. Using the background of Berlin's ruins he made 'A Foreign Affair' with his friend from early days, Marlene Dietrich. Returning to the States he rejoined Charles for what would be their last collaboration - 'Sunset Boulevard' which ended their 14 year partnership. Billy wanted Mae West for the role of Norma Desmond but she turned it down so he spoke to Pola Negri but visualised her thick accent causing too many problems. Willam Holden was a last minute casting for the role of Joe after Montgomery Clift dropped out 2 weeks before shooting was due to start.

Spouse (2)

Audrey Young (30 June 1949 - 27 March 2002) (his death)
Judith Frances Coppicus (22 December 1936 - 1947) (divorced) (2 children)

His movies frequently started with narration
Films feature a sharp wit and characters who frequently try to change their identity.
A few of his films feature scenes where characters play cards (Sunset Boulevard (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), The Apartment (1960)). Wilder himself was an avid bridge and poker player.
Frequently cast Marilyn Monroe, William Holden, Jack Lemmon and Fred MacMurray. Wilder directed Jack Lemmon in seven movies: The Apartment (1960), Avanti! (1972), Buddy Buddy (1981), The Fortune Cookie (1966), The Front Page (1974), Irma la Douce (1963) and Some Like It Hot (1959).
Films often featured low key lighting
Featured dangerous, manipulative women in his films
Characters often look themselves on a little mirror
Cynical yet humorous films

Father of the twins Victoria and Vincent (born 1939). Their mother was Judith. Vincent died shortly after birth.
Met Audrey Young at Paramount Studios on set for The Lost Weekend (1945), as his divorce from Judith was in progress and he had a liaison with the actress Doris Dowling.
He used "Billie" as his first name until his emigration in 1933.
Estranged brother of producer/director W. Lee Wilder, uncle of Myles Wilder.
Long famous for the modern-art collection he put together over his lifetime (he sold only a portion of it in 1989 for $32.6 million)
Awarded Austria's Golden Order, First Class for Meritorious Services. [1991]
An inveterate clotheshorse, at age 83 he still owned over 60 cashmere sweaters.
Tom Cruise and Cameron Crowe begged Wilder to appear in Jerry Maguire (1996), but he turned them down flat.
He wanted to direct Schindler's List (1993), but Steven Spielberg preferred doing it himself. Wilder has been quoted saying it would have become his most personal film.
Had a long-standing partnership with screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond, with whom he won an Oscar for The Apartment (1960).
At least three of his films have been made into Broadway musicals. The Apartment (1960) was the basis for "Promises, Promises" in 1968. Some Like It Hot (1959) was the basis for "Sugar" in 1973. And Sunset Boulevard (1950) was adapted into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1993.
Once told Billy Bob Thornton that he was too ugly to be an actor and he should write a screenplay for himself in which he could exploit his less than perfect features. Thornton later collected an Oscar for his Sling Blade (1996) screenplay.
At one point he was slated to direct a movie about the Marx brothers running the United Nations. This was around 1960. The project fell apart after Chico Marx's death in 1961, which was followed by Harpo Marx's death in 1964.
He collaborated closely with Steven Spielberg on the script for Schindler's List (1993), and was one of several directors considered to direct it (Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese; both turned down the project). Although Wilder strongly considered directing Schindler's List (1993), he felt he was a little too old (he had already retired) and the subject was almost too personal (his mother, step-father and grandmother were killed in the Holocaust). It was ultimately Wilder who told Spielberg he should direct it.
His mother, Gitla Siedlisker, was murdered in 1943 in the Plaszow concentration camp. His stepfather, Bernard (Berl) Siedlisker, died in 1942 in the Belzec concentration camp, while his grandmother, Balbina Baldinger, died in 1943 in the ghetto of Nowy Targ.
In 1949 he married Audrey Young, an actress and former singer with the Tommy Dorsey band, whom he met on the set of The Lost Weekend (1945).
In the early 1950s, Wilder had planned on doing a film with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The film was to open with Stan and Ollie each sleeping in one of the "o"s of the Hollywood sign. The plot centered on a woman coming between them. The film was never made due to Hardy's failing health.
His idol and mentor was German director Ernst Lubitsch. Wilder always kept a sign hanging in his office that asked, "How would Lubitsch do it?"
Although born as Samuel Wilder, he was called "Billy" by his mother from infancy and it stuck. Some theorize it was due to her fascination with the western character Buffalo Bill Cody, but it may have been just because she thought it sounded American (she was obsessed with American culture).
Was voted the 24th Greatest Director of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
Because of his rounded face and non-stop elfin energy, people often pictured him as short and wiry, but he was in fact near 6 feet tall (taller than his favorite star, Jack Lemmon).
Biography in: John Wakeman, editor. "World Film Directors, Volume One, 1890-1945". Pages 1206-1210. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1987.
Liked the name "Sheldrake" so much that he used it in three different films, most prominently in The Apartment (1960), but also in Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964).
Was the subject of the 1999 book "Conversations with Wilder," written by director/writer Cameron Crowe.
It is thought that Wilder gained his acerbic view of people early on. His family, Austrian Jews, traveled constantly, and Wilder almost never made friends among his peers at school and instead found himself the subject of persecution as both a Jew and a foreigner.
Not having seen his parents since he went to Berlin to make films, he joined American patrols through war-torn Europe shortly after the war. Through intense research he found out that both his mother and grandmother were killed in concentration camps, a subject that he usually declined to discuss. However, when shooting a film with Wilder, an actor expressed sympathy for his own Nazi character, to which the usually cool-headed Wilder roared, "Those bastards killed my mother!!!"
Wilder had tried to enter the U.S. via Mexico, where U.S. officials repeatedly denied him entry for several months. At the point of losing hope, he went to a new immigration officer who asked him his profession. After stating he was a filmmaker, the officer stamped his papers, and upon entering the U.S. the officer said,"Make good ones, then."
He directed 14 different actors in Oscar-nominated performances: Barbara Stanwyck, Ray Milland, William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Robert Strauss, Audrey Hepburn, Charles Laughton , Elsa Lanchester, Jack Lemmon, Jack Kruschen, Shirley MacLaine and Walter Matthau. Milland, Holden and Matthau won Oscars for their performances in a Wilder film.
He is among an elite group of eight directors who have won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay (Original/Adapted) for the same film. In 1961 he won all three for The Apartment (1960). The others are Leo McCarey, Francis Ford Coppola, James L. Brooks, Peter Jackson, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, and Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Is portrayed by Howard Caine in Marilyn: The Untold Story (1980), by Allan Corduner in Norma Jean & Marilyn (1996) and by Peter Feder in The Audrey Hepburn Story (2000)
As a writer, he had odd habits. On the one hand, he hated writing alone, so he almost always used a partner, someone to be in the room with him while he worked. On the other hand, many of the partners complained that if he heard an idea he did not like, he could be cruel and insulting. Many writers quit on him because they could not take his abuse.
One of the most eclectic writer-directors ever. He excelled in film noir (Double Indemnity (1944)), drama (The Lost Weekend (1945)), comedy (Some Like It Hot (1959)) and war (Stalag 17 (1953)).
He died on the same day as Dudley Moore and Milton Berle. He and Moore both died of pneumonia. Of the three, Wilder is the only one who never made a guest appearance in The Muppet Show (1976).
In his last years he became patron of the "Billy-Wilder-Institute" located in Germany, a film school founded to educate only producers and screenwriters. The school was closed after just two years because of the death of its founder and dean Lothar Rhode.
He was awarded the American National Medal of the Arts in 1993 by the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington, DC.
On the first page of every screenplay of his own he used to write "Cum Deo" (With God), a habit he said he had taken from Pauline Kael. "It's not harmful, anyway," Wilder explained, "and could corrupt that guy dwelling up there".
His directorial debut was The Major and the Minor (1942).
His favorite film was Battleship Potemkin (1925).
Profiled in "Conversations with Directors: An Anthology of Interviews from Literature/Film Quarterly", E.M. Walker, D.T. Johnson, eds. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008.
The song, "Isn't it Romantic?" is featured in many of Wilder's films, not particularly because he liked the song, but, as he said of himself, "I'm cheap." Wilder got a great deal when he originally licensed the song for use, which allowed him to use it over and over.
He wrote five of the American Film Institute's 100 Funniest Movies: Some Like It Hot (1959) at #1, The Apartment (1960) at #20, The Seven Year Itch (1955) at #51, Ninotchka (1939) at #52 and Ball of Fire (1941) at #92.
Directed four of the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Movies: Sunset Boulevard (1950) at #16, Some Like It Hot (1959) at #22, Double Indemnity (1944) at #29 and The Apartment (1960) at #80.
He worked closely with two co-writers in his career: earlier in his career with Charles Brackett, an older man who frequently provided a strong argumentative counterpoint in the writing room and later with I.A.L. Diamond, who possessed a cynical, humorous world view more in line with Wilder's.
Ingmar Bergman claimed that Wilder was his favorite Hollywood director.
Honored on a US Postage Stamp in May 2012 (along with Frank Capra, John Ford, and John Huston).
Was a fan of the British film Brief Encounter (1945). It inspired him to make the movie The Apartment (1960). The premise for The Apartment is based on a male character who loans out his flat to a friend and doesn't care what happens while he's out.
He was always uncomfortable around children and was an absentee father to his two children from his first marriage. He and his second wife, Audrey, agreed that they didn't want children.
He directed two Best Picture Academy Award winners: The Lost Weekend (1945) and The Apartment (1960).
Gaylord Larsen's 1988 novel "A Paramount Kill" features Wilder as a character. A whodunit set in 1940s Hollywood, it has Raymond Chandler as the hero and Wilder as his antagonist, causing trouble for Chandler because of their bad blood during the making of Double Indemnity (1944).