Oscar-winning filmmaker Billy Wilder dies at 95

By Anthony Breznican, The Associated Press
Friday March 29, 2002

LOS ANGELES — Oscar-winning filmmaker Billy Wilder, the Austrian-born cynic whose gifts for writing and directing led to such classics as “Sunset Boulevard,” “Some Like It Hot” and “Double Indemnity,” has died. He was 95. 

Wilder died Wednesday night at his home, said George Schlatter, a producer and longtime friend. Schlatter said his friend of 40 years had been in failing health in recent months and he believed Wilder had been suffering from a bout with pneumonia. 

“We’ve lost a biggie,” Schlatter, producer of the 1960s comedy show “Laugh-In,” said Thursday. “I met him when I was just a kid, you know. And I was a fan all that time.” 

As co-writer, director and producer of the 1960 film “The Apartment,” Wilder collected three Oscars, the only person to do so for one film until Francis Ford Coppola won three for “The Godfather II” in 1974. James L. Brooks later did it for “Terms of Endearment” and James Cameron for “Titanic.” 

Among his other classics: “Sunset Boulevard,” “Double Indemnity,” “Stalag 17,” “The Lost Weekend,” “The Seven Year Itch,” “Some Like It Hot” and “Witness for the Prosecution.” 

“There were no ifs, ands or buts about it. He knew what he wanted. He knew how to express it, and he knew the best ways to get what he wanted out of people,” said George Sidney, 89, director of 1951’s “Showboat” and 1964’s “Viva Las Vegas.” 

His wry commentaries on the dark side of authority, love and fame influenced many contemporary filmmakers such as Cameron Crowe, Steven Soderbergh and Curtis Hanson. 

“His mind and personality were so strong it was easy to be lulled into thinking he’d go on forever,” said Hanson, director of “L.A. Confidential” and “Wonder Boys.” “As a man he was witty and irreverent of course, but he was also a humanist.” 

Shirley MacLaine, who was in her mid-20s when she co-starred in “The Apartment,” said he was an important influence on her career. 

“The great master is finished here,” she said. “He will write and direct another masterpiece in heaven. I learned more from him than anyone else.” 

Wilder was also noted as one of Hollywood’s best wits. He once remarked of postwar France: “It’s a country where you can’t tear the toilet paper but the currency crumbles in your hands.” William Holden said Wilder had “a mind full of razor blades.” 

His films were notable for their clever dialogue and an overlay of cynicism and betrayal. His actors won Oscars for their hard-bitten portrayals: Ray Milland as the unremitting alcoholic in “The Lost Weekend,” Holden as the suspected prison-camp traitor in “Stalag 17,” Walter Matthau as an insurance cheater in “The Fortune Cookie.” 

“Making movies is a little like walking into a dark room,” he once mused. “Some people stumble across furniture, others break their legs, but some of us see better in the dark than others. The ultimate trick is to convince, persuade. Every single person out there is an idiot, but collectively they’re a genius.” 

After beginning his film career in Europe, Wilder came to Hollywood in 1934 knowing 100 words of English. His fortunes turned in 1938 when he first teamed with Charles Brackett, a polished, erudite member of New York’s literary establishment. 

Brackett’s refinement and Wilder’s “vulgar energy” produced such scripts as “Midnight,” “Hold Back the Dawn,” “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” and the Greta Garbo comedy “Ninotchka.” The collaboration lasted 12 years, then Wilder wrote with the late I.A.L. “Izzy” Diamond for 30 years. Unsure in English — he spoke with an accent after six decades in America — he always needed a writing partner. 

Wilder began directing with “The Major and the Minor,” a 1942 comedy with Ginger Rogers and Milland. With “Double Indemnity” and “The Lost Weekend,” he became a major director as well as writer; the latter brought Oscars in both categories. 

Brackett, who produced their films, and Wilder ended the partnership with “Sunset Boulevard,” which brought Wilder a writing Oscar. From then on, Wilder produced his own films. 

After directing Marilyn Monroe in her two best comedies, “The Seven Year Itch” and “Some Like It Hot,” Wilder said he would never again direct the chronically tardy star. 

“I have discussed this with my doctor and my psychiatrist and my accountant, and they tell me I am too old and too rich to go through this again,” he said. 

The Wilder career peaked with “The Apartment,” a cynical tale of corporate corruption. Jack Lemmon played an underling who lends his apartment to company executives for trysts with secretaries. MacLaine was the romantic victim of a lying boss, Fred MacMurray, in a rare change of type (his other: “Double Indemnity”). 

Wilder continued filming for 20 years, but except for the 1963 “Irma La Douce,” he never duplicated his previous successes. The films after “The Apartment”: “One, Two, Three,” “Kiss Me, Stupid,” “The Fortune Cookie,” “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” “Avanti!” “The Front Page,” “Fedora.” His last film was “Buddy Buddy” in 1981 with Lemmon and Matthau. 

Despite the failures, Wilder was still working on film projects in his 80s. He never lost his wonderment at the magic of movies. 

In his late years, Wilder was laden with honors, including the Motion Picture Academy’s Irving Thalberg award for a consistently high level of production and the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, both in 1988. 

When the film institute ran a survey to pick the 100 best American movies in 1998, four directed by Wilder made the list; when it picked the 100 funniest American movies in 2000, “Some Like It Hot” was No. 1. 

Wilder always looked the same on movie sets: slender, slightly hunched, wearing a sweater with sleeves rolled up, Tyrolean hat and cigar, always with ready wit (“If there’s anything I hate more than being taken seriously, it’s being taken too seriously”). 

He was born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906, in the small town of Sucha, 100 miles east of Vienna. The boy haunted theaters that played American films, and admired early stars like William S. Hart and Tom Mix. 

“The guy I really went for was Douglas Fairbanks,” Wilder said in later years. “He conquered a screen. And he had such panache in his whole lifestyle.” 

After short stints at the University of Vienna and working as a journalist, he broke into the movies when he was hired to write a semidocumentary, “People on Sunday,” in 1929. 

Wilder’s screenwriting career flourished until 1933, when Hitler captured power in Germany. Wilder, a Jew, fled to Paris; his mother, grandmother and stepfather died at Auschwitz. 

He co-directed a film with Danielle Darrieux, and then left for America after receiving an offer to write scripts for Columbia Pictures at $150 a week. 

A first marriage to California socialite Judith Iribe ended in 1947 after nine years; they had a daughter, Victoria. 

In 1949, Wilder married a former starlet and band singer, Audrey Young. For many years they lived in a spacious penthouse apartment in Westwood, surrounded by works of Picasso, Miro and other masters. In 1989, more than 80 items from his collection were sold at auction for more than $30 million. 

He is survived by his wife and daughter. 


Associated Press Writer Bob Thomas contributed to this report.