Robert Wise, a four-time Oscar winner for producing and directing “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music,” died Wednesday in Los Angeles, days after his 91st birthday.
Wise died at UCLA Medical Center of heart failure, according to family friend Lawrence Mirisch.
Wise, who spent his later years in the service of the film industry as president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, came to directing via editing, most notably Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons.”
DGA president Michael Apted said, “Bob’s devotion to the craft of filmmaking and his wealth of head-and-heart knowledge about what we do and how we do it was a special gift to his fellow directors. We will deeply miss him.”
Gracious and soft-spoken, Wise came to symbolize an older and more conservative generation of filmmakers who viewed themselves as artisans of cinema rather than stylistic innovators.
Wise was known as a master craftsman. He was not an auteur and shaped his style to the material rather than applying a personal stamp to the story.
As a result, he was sometimes drafted to rescue auteurs in trouble and wound up in the middle of numerous controversies over his long career, from the recutting of “Kane” and “Ambersons” to the removal of helmer-choreographer Jerome Robbins from “West Side Story” and, less successfully, the rushed release of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
He was also instrumental in launching or shaping the careers of several major stars, including Paul Newman and Julie Andrews.
Beginning his directing career as a B-movie helmer of such Val Lewton productions as “The Body Snatcher,” Wise became a first-rate director of social-minded, grittily realistic dramas such as “The Set-Up,” starring Robert Ryan, and “I Want to Live!,” which earned an actress Oscar for Susan Hayward.
He went on to a career that mixed big-budget event pics like his two Oscar-winning musicals with tense, often cerebral genre pictures such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “The Haunting” that have come to be regarded as classics.
Born in Winchester, Ind., Wise set out to be a journalist, but his dream was squashed by the Depression.
“There was no money for me to stay in school,” he said.
There was no work in Indiana, either, so he joined his brother David, who worked in the accounting department at RKO in Los Angeles. Through his brother, he landed a $25 a week job carrying film cans.
He was soon promoted to assistant to T.K. Wood, a sound and music editor, then made an assistant to editor Billy Hamilton.
By the late ’30s, he had co-editing credits on such films as “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” He earned solo editing credit on “Bachelor Mother” and “My Favorite Wife,” two of Garson Kanin’s better RKO comedies. While assisting Kanin on the latter, he met Patricia Doyle, who was working as star Irene Dunne’s stand-in. They were married in 1942 and had a son, Robert Jr.
Wise was assigned “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles’ maiden film directing effort, and had the responsibility of trimming several scenes to avoid a lawsuit from newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, upon whose life the film was based. Wise got an Oscar nom for his work.
When Welles fell behind on “Ambersons,” he allowed Wise to direct a couple of scenes. After a disastrous sneak on the film, RKO tapped Wise to re-edit several scenes and then to bridge continuity by writing and directing fresh sequences. He earned the enmity of Welles and many film historians for doing so.
Wise petitioned the studio for the opportunity to direct, but didn’t get the chance to do so until Lewton fell behind on the 1944 “Curse of the Cat People” and Wise was brought in to finish. He segued into other Lewton melodramas, “Mademoiselle Fifi” and the 1945 “The Body Snatcher,” a superior period thriller starring Boris Karloff.
For the next several years, Wise was assigned B productions but eventually graduated to A films with Robert Mitchum oater “Blood on the Moon.” His next film, boxing pic “The Set-Up” (1949), was not financially successful but established him as a director of tense, realistic drama.
When RKO did not pick up his option, he signed a six-picture deal with 20th Century Fox.
A breakthrough film was the 1951 “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” a model ’50s science-fiction effort. Throughout the decade, Wise alternated between glossy star-laden projects like “Run Silent, Run Deep,” “Helen of Troy,” “So Big” and “Executive Suite” (1954) and more, modest touching efforts such as “Tribute to a Bad Man” (in which he fired Spencer Tracy and replaced him with James Cagney); Paul Newman’s star-making “Somebody up There Likes Me” (1956); “Until They Sail”; and Hayward’s triumph, “I Want to Live!”(1958).
Wise paired with Robbins on “West Side Story,” but the collaboration didn’t work out. Robbins directed several musical numbers but quickly fell behind schedule. Wise took over the rest of the film, helped by Robbins’ assistants. Both received director credit and shared the Oscar when the Leonard Bernstein musical drama garnered 10 Academy Awards and became a major box office success.
For his next two films, Wise was feeling his oats. His screen version of “Two for the Seesaw” was a felicitous bittersweet romantic pairing of Shirley MacLaine and Mitchum; “The Haunting,” his adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” is a classic supernatural thriller.
“The Sound of Music” became the biggest-grossing film of all time upon its release in 1965 and earned Oscars for best picture and for Wise as director. The film has become a perennial fave.
Wise became involved in his biggest B.O. hit, “The Sound of Music,” almost inadvertently. He had turned down the project, not being a fan of the stage musical. When William Wyler withdrew at the eleventh hour, however, the studio and screenwriter Ernest Lehman went back to him, urging him to change his mind. After script changes and also changes to the score, Wise finally agreed to come on board.
After the mixed reception for the big-budget “The Sand Pebbles,” starring Steve McQueen, Wise stepped into a bomb, “Star!” with Andrews, which was his biggest professional disappointment. He bounced back slightly with “The Andromeda Strain,” a tense adaptation of Michael Crichton’s sci-fi novel.
Wise was assigned “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” which cost more than $40 million and was widely derided by fans of the TV show but did well enough to launch the Paramount movie franchise that continued for more than 20 years.
His final directorial assignment was a modestly budgeted failed musical “Rooftops.”
Wise kept busy off-screen. He served as DGA prexy from 1971-75 and was chair of the guild’s special projects committee from its inception in 1976 through 2001. He received the guild’s lifetime achievement award in 1988 and the President’s Award in 2001.
He served on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for 25 years, and was president of the Academy from 1985 to 1988. He received the Academy’s Irving Thalberg award in 1966.
In 1991 he helped in the restoration of “Citizen Kane,” received a Second Century Award from Eastman Kodak for his work with young filmmakers and a National Medal of Arts award from President George H.W. Bush.
And in 1996, he made his first and only appearance as an actor, playing a small part in John Landis’ “The Stupids.”
He is survived by his second wife, Millicent, a son, daughter and granddaughter.
Services are pending.