Born Robert Earl Wise, September 10, 1914, in Winchester, IN; died of heart failure, September 14, 2005, in Los Angeles, CA. Director. In a career that spanned five decades, film director Robert Wise never limited himself to working in a single genre, and made movies that ranged from sci-fi to film noir. But his legacy will be forever linked with the Academy Awards he won for West Side Story and The Sound of Music in the 1960s, two of the most successful interpretations of Broadway shows ever made. In nearly all of his projects, "Wise invariably gave audiences strong, intelligent stories with fine casts, made in a style that was flawlessly lucid," wrote Michael Wilmington in the Chicago Tribune.
Born in 1914 in Winchester, Indiana, Wise hoped for a career in sports journalism when he entered Franklin College. It was the Great Depression, however, and his tuition money ran out, so he headed for Los Angeles. His brother was already there, working in the finance office of the RKO studios, and helped Wise find a job as a studio porter. He moved up the RKO ladder to the sound department and eventually became a film editor. He earned his first nomination for an Academy Award in editing for Orson Welles' 1941 classic Citizen Kane.
Welles was a major industry figure at the time, and hired Wise to work on his next project, The Magnificent Ambersons. Studio bosses demanded its 148-minute running time be cut when preview audiences walked out, and because Welles was out of the country at the time, gave Wise the job of fixing it. The first scenes he directed came when he had to shoot some transitions to make up for excised segments, and he managed to cut the 1942 release to 88 minutes. Welles was outraged, and claimed that Wise had ruined his picture. "In terms of a work of art, I grant you Orson's original film was better," Wise conceded years later, according to the Times of London. "But we were faced with the realities of what the studio was demanding."
Studio executives next called on Wise to salvage The Curse of the Cat People after the project's original director was fired and the film already behind schedule. After 1944, he worked steadily, turning out one or two movies a year, some of them minor classics, and some of which he also produced. The 1947 noir classic Born to Kill endured as a critics' favorite, as did his 1949 boxing story The Set-Up and The Day the Earth Stood Still, a 1951 sci-fi parable. Starlet Susan Hayward won an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1958 when Wise directed her in the death-row saga I Want to Live !.
Wise won two Oscars of his own in 1961 for West Side Story, the film adaptation of a Broadway musical based on Romeo and Juliet. He shared the Best Director Academy Award with choreographer Jerome Robbins, and took another for Best Picture. That track record made him an obvious choice to helm another musical adaptation, The Sound of Music, the 1965 Julie Andrews vehicle that became one of the top-grossing films of all time. Andrews would be forever linked to the role of a rebellious nun assigned to serve as governess for a motherless Austrian brood. She turns them into singing sensations, wins the heart of their stern father, and they all flee the Nazi threat in Europe in what was loosely based on the story of the real-life von Trapp family.
Wise's later projects included a 1971 virus-peril thriller The Andromeda Strain, The Hindenburg, one of the standard mid-1970s disaster flicks; the first Star Trek film, and the little-seen Rooftops from 1989, his last theatrical project. A well-known figure in Hollywood, he served a stint as president of the Directors Guild of America and another as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 1966 he was honored with the Academy's Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his lifetime achievement as a producer, and in 1988 the Directors Guild of America bestowed on him their highest tribute, the D.W. Griffith Award. A new generation of directors had discovered his classics, among them Martin Scorsese, who said that his 1980 picture Raging Bull had been influenced by The Set-Up.
Wise celebrated his ninety-first birthday in the late summer of 2005, but had a heart attack later that week. He died of heart failure at the University of California—Los Angeles Medical Center on September 14, 2005. Widowed in 1975, Wise had a son from his first marriage, Robert E. Wise, and is also survived by his second wife, Millicent, and stepdaughter, Pamela Rosenberg. Sources: Chicago Tribune, September 16, 2005, sec. 3, p. 9; Entertainment Weekly, September 30, 2005, p. 21; Los Angeles Times, September 15, 2005, p. B10; New York Times, September 16, 2005, p. A25; Times (London), September 16, 2005, p. 74; Washington Post, September 16, 2005, p. B7.
— Carol Brennan