One of the most successful directors of the 1960s, when he became an efficient maker of epic-length pictures, Robert Wise is one of Hollywood's few popularly recognized filmmakers. He joined RKO in the 1930s as a cutter and eventually became one of the studio's top editors, working in this capacity on classics such as The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Citizen Kane (1941), and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). He became a director with help from producer Val Lewton, who assigned Wise to finish Curse of the Cat People (1944), a B-movie that had fallen behind schedule, and the resulting picture proved extremely haunting and enduring. Wise later directed The Body Snatcher (1945) for Lewton, but after the producer left RKO, he found himself locked into B-movies. His 1948 psychological Western Blood on The Moon, starring Robert Mitchum, and the acclaimed boxing drama The Set-Up (1949) were the only two important pictures that Wise got to do during his last four years at the studio. Wise left RKO at the end of the 1940s and went to 20th Century Fox, where his most important film, among a string of popular releases, was the visionary pacifist science fiction/drama The Day the Earth Stood Still. He also formed a short-lived production company with his former RKO colleague, Mark Robson, producing the acclaimed fact-based crime-drama Captive City (1952). During the mid-'50s, Wise's films rapidly rose in importance and visibility, including Executive Suite (1954), I Want To Live (1958), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), all of which embraced important topical and sociological subjects amid their compelling performances. However, Wise's breakthrough as a "money director" came with West Side Story (1961), a screen adaptation of the stage hit (co-directed with Jerome Robbins) that earned multiple Oscars and a huge return at the box office. After a return to occult subjects with The Haunting (1963), which he also produced, Wise found himself in a position to establish himself as a major producer. Director William Wyler had been chosen by 20th Century Fox to direct the screen version of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music, but had balked at the last moment and went to England to film The Collector. Wise was suggested as a replacement, and agreed to make the movie, but only if the studio agreed to finance Wise's production of The Sand Pebbles (1966), which he had been trying to raise money to make for several years. Fox agreed, and The Sound of Music (1965) went on to become one of the biggest box-office hits of the decade, acquiring a shelf of Academy Awards in the process. The Sand Pebbles, starring Steve McQueen, was too serious a movie for the public to accept in 1966, with its overtones of the Vietnam War and its downbeat ending, although it eventually made money on re-release. Much less successful was Star (1968), Wise's epic musical based on the life of Gertrude Lawrence, which was heavily cut after a disastrous first run (but later restored to full length), and which never recovered its huge costs. After forming a new production company with Mark Robson, Wise returned to the profitable column with the science fiction/drama The Andromeda Strain (1971), based on Michael Crichton's best-seller. His serious, adult romance Two People (1973) ran into problems with the censors and was heavily cut. And The Hindenburg came out too late in the '70s disaster film cycle to attract huge audiences, despite its more-serious-than-usual theme for such a genre film. Wise's fortunes declined following Audrey Rose (1977), a sensitively made and effective occult drama; Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1980) was marred by major production problems; and Rooftops, an '80s urban musical, was ignored by the public and derided by the critics. However, as a spokesman for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Robert Wise has remained a very visible and well-known director and figure in Hollywood since the 1970s.
Biography by Bruce Eder
- Met his first wife, Patricia Doyle, on the set of 1940's My Favorite Wife, where she was the stand-in for star Irene Dunne and he was the film's editor.
- The War Department in Washington, DC, turned down his request to borrow military equipment for his 1951 antiwar film The Day the Earth Stood Still, but producers were able to procure the necessary props from the National Guard of Virginia.
- To prepare for the execution scene in 1958's I Want to Live!, he attended an actual execution.
- Had to leave Indiana's Franklin College in his sophomore year because of his family's financial situation, but the school swarded him an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts in 1968.
- In an Academy Awards first, he and Jerome Robbins shared the Best Director Oscar for West Side Story (1961).
- Served as president of the Directors Guild of America (1971-75) and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (1984-87).
- Made his screen acting debut in John Landis' The Stupids (1996).
- In 1998, he received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award and the library of the Directors Guild of America was named in his honor.