He had a double-barreled talent for writing scenarios and directing movies that won him Oscars and great respect in both fields. In a career that spanned more than half a century Wilder had a hand in creating some of the most memorable moments in American movie history.
Wilder had success after success in just about every genre, equally at home with romantic comedies, film noir, suspense, farce, courtroom dramas. His main characters often were anti-heroes, men and women with major character flaws, his stories often biting indictments of hypocrisy in American life, mixing grimness with offsetting humor.
He won six Academy Awards -- two for directing, three for writing and one as the producer of the year's best picture -- and earned nearly two dozen Oscar nominations in all.
The director scored big with "The Apartment" in 1960 when he won Oscars for best picture, best director and best screenplay (with I.A.L Diamond). He also won the best director prize for "The Lost Weekend" in 1945 and shared writing honors with Charles Brackett. The two also won Oscars for writing "Sunset Boulevard" in 1950.
Among his nominations for best screenplay was one for "Some Like It Hot" (1959), which he directed and co-wrote with Diamond, honored in 1999 by the American Film Institute as the funniest U.S. movie ever made.
Wilder had a long and profitable director-producer relationship with Brackett until they broke up and Wilder moved away on his own with a bitter approach to his movies. He later teamed with Diamond, starting with "Some Like It Hot," and they worked together for the rest of his career.
Other films Wilder made, as director and writer, included "The Major and the Minor" (1942), "Double Indemnity" (1944), "Stalag 17" (1953), "Sabrina" (1954),"The Seven Year Itch" (1955), "Witness for the Prosecution" (1958) and "The Front Page" (1974). His final film was the comedy "Buddy Buddy" in 1981.
Wilder will be remembered for delicate, unforgettable images that have delighted moviegoers around the world. For example, Gloria Swanson as the legendary Norma Desmond descending the staircase at the end of "Sunset Boulevard;" Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon precariously balanced on high heels running from gangsters in "Some Like It Hot," Ray Milland's pathetic drunk in "The Lost Weekend" and, of course, Marilyn Monroe surrounded by her billowing white skirt as she stands over a New York subway grate in "The Seven Year Itch."
Asked in a 1996 National Public Radio interview, shortly after turning 90, what was the secret of his success, Wilder said, "I work on schedule. I show up. I don't drink. I've never missed a day. I'm an honorable, reliable man and that's enormously important. Talent ---- phhht! But, reliable, that's the most important thing."
Samuel Wilder was born to Max and Eugenia Wilder in the small village of Sucha 200 miles from Vienna, Austria, in what is now Poland, on June 22, 1906. His mother, who fondly remembered seeing Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show during a visit to New York, nicknamed him Billie, and the tag stuck (though it was changed to Billy when Wilder emigrated to the U.S.).
His father owned a profitable hotel-restaurant in Kracow and they also had a home in Vienna. Wilder started out to be a lawyer but soon gave way to his love for writing and, leaving law school, went to work for a Vienna newspaper.
Moving to Berlin be joined another paper and began dabbling in screenwriting for German films. When Hitler came to power in 1933, he fled to Paris where he was befriended by French moviemakers.
Unfortunately, his family didn't make it out and perished in Nazi concentration camps. Biographers linked this tragedy with Wilder's unique style of directing years later.
He went on to the United States, entering through Mexico, and sought German-speaking movie compatriots since he was not fluent in English. Peter Lorre, who had been an outstanding actor in German films, notably the classic "M," helped him get a start in Hollywood as a scriptwriter.
In 1938 Wilder came to the attention of Brackett and they collaborated on "Midnight," which became a box office hit. Their partnership thrived with the production of "Ninotchka" (they made Garbo laugh on screen, quite a feat in its day) and Howard Hawks' "Ball of Fire," continuing until 1950 with the exception of one year, 1945, when Wilder served in the U.S. Army as a colonel in Germany as head of the Psychological Warfare Division.
After his break-up with the gentle, sophisticated Brackett, Wilder became more cynical and startled some of his associates with bursts of vulgarity, but his movie-making senses were never dulled. As a loner, Wilder let his somewhat sordid outlook on life affect his direction of a movie originally titled "Ace in the Hole." It was the story of an embittered newspaper reporter who made tragedy a stepping stone to success. Released as "The Big Carnival" in 1951, the film was applauded by the critics but bombed at the box office.
Other Wilder films included "Five Graves to Cairo" (1943), "The Spirit of St. Louis" (1957), "Love in the Afternoon" (1957), "Irma La Douce" (1963), "Kiss Me Stupid" (1964), "The Fortune Cookie" (1966) and "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" (1970).
Receiving the Irving Thalberg Award for lifetime achievement during the Academy Awards ceremony in April 1988, Wilder paid tribute to his long-time script collaborator, Diamond, who died of cancer 10 days later at age 67.
Wilder recounted his pilgrimage to America after fleeing Hitler's Germany in 1934. He told of being sized up by the American consul in Mexicali, Mexico, as he was attempting to extend his visa. "Finally, he asked me, 'What do you do?' And I said, 'I write movies.'" Wilder said the consul stamped his passport and said, "Write some good ones."
After the standing ovation for Wilder subsided, he went on, recalling the days when he woiuld help Paramount turn out 50 films each year.
"Now they're making four or five pictures a year and they're looking over your shoulder, and they're shaking in their boots that it might be a failure ... (because) police and secretaries might have to be fired."
Asked if he was eager to try his hand one more time, Wilder said, "I am willing to make a movie. I am unwilling to make a deal."
"When I'm foolish enough to look at one of my own pictures, I wish I could take it back, re-cast it, re-cut it," Wilder said. "You don't bury a dog of a picture. It's going to be on TV forever to stink up the neighborhood."
Asked which picture he wished he might be remembered for, Wilder responded: "'The Battleship Potemkin,' Unfortunately, (Russian director Serge) Eisenstein made it."
Commenting another time (in a New York Times interview) on the new movies coming out, he noted the growing importance of special effects, saying he could never make one of those. "I gave up smoking," he said, "because I couldn't reload my Zippo."
Wilder, whose first marriage, to Judith Iribe in 1936, ended in divorce, married Audrey Young in 1949. His was a true rags to riches tale. When he arrived in America he had eleven dollars in his pocket. Half a century later, his private art collection brought $32.6 million at auction.
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