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Legendary director Billy Wilder dead at 95

'If you have something important to say, wrap it in chocolate'

Legendary director Billy Wilder dead at 95

By Paul Clinton

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Writer-director Billy Wilder, whose films' cynical worldview was often at odds with their rousing humor, died of pneumonia Wednesday night in his Beverly Hills home. He was 95.

The director's health had been failing in recent months, producer George Schlatter, a longtime friend, told The Associated Press. Wilder died peacefully in his sleep about 11 p.m. PST, said Schlatter.

Wilder was one of the last survivors of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. His remarkable career in American cinema extended from the mid-1930s to 1981 and included such classics as "Double Indemnity" (1944), "The Lost Weekend" (1945), "Sunset Blvd." (1950), "Sabrina" (1954), "Some Like It Hot" (1959) and "The Apartment" (1960).

Along the way, he helped to shape the art of moviemaking for generations to come, forged the careers of many of Hollywood's greatest stars, was nominated for 21 Academy Awards and won six times. Both "The Lost Weekend" and "The Apartment" won best picture.

Heading to Hollywood

His early life held few hints of his future as a major influence in American film.

CNN's Sherri Sylvester looks at the illustrious career of late film director Billy Wilder (March 28)

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He was born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906, in Sucha Beskidzka, now in Poland -- some 200 miles outside of Vienna in the fading years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Later the young man nicknamed Billy by his mother, enrolled at the University of Vienna, in keeping with his father's wishes that he become an attorney. But he dropped out to become a newspaper reporter.

He moved to Berlin, Germany, in 1926, and became a paid "tea-time dancer" -- entertaining lonely ladies for a short time. But he was soon churning out news stories for magazines, and became fascinated with movies and started writing title cards for silent films.

When Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power in 1933, Wilder, who was Jewish, was one of the first to read the handwriting on the wall. He fled to Paris and, later, to Hollywood. He tried to persuade his family members to leave Germany, but they refused -- many of his relatives, including his mother and grandmother, died in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.

Wilder, one of many German-Jewish emigres who came to Hollywood in the 1930s (he roomed with an old friend, Peter Lorre, for a short time), soon established himself as a writer. He was hired by Paramount Studios, at which he was known for his witty, sparkling dialogue.

In 1936, a story editor at the studio teamed him with Charles Brackett. The two became longtime collaborators. Together, they received three Academy Award nominations for their scripts for "Ninotchka," the 1939 film in which -- as the movie's advertisements trumpeted -- "Garbo laughs!"; and "Ball of Fire" and "Hold Back The Dawn," both in 1941.

After these films, Wilder learned what many have learned since: If you want to protect your script, you also have to direct it.

Thereafter, Wilder directed all the scripts he co-wrote with Brackett until the team broke up in 1950. From 1957 until 1981 Wilder worked with another longtime writing collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond.

'I just made pictures I would have liked to see'

Lemmon, Wilder & Curtis.
Jack Lemmon, left, Wilder, center, and Tony Curtis celebrate the 25th anniversary of the movie, "Some Like it Hot," in California in 1984.  

Wilder's first effort at wearing both writing and directing hats was 1942's "The Major and the Minor," in which Ginger Rogers passes herself off as a 12-year-old girl.

It wasn't until his third directing job that Wilder became a force to be reckoned with. In 1944 he and Raymond Chandler wrote "Double Indemnity," which was one of the first of the "film noir" genre. The movie starred Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and showcased Wilder's lively -- if cynical -- style.

Wilder said, "I just made pictures I would have liked to see," and he was equally at home with the darkest dramas and lightest comedies.

At times, he wasn't sure which was which. He first envisioned one of his greatest classics, "Sunset Blvd.," as a comedy starring Mae West. But when she turned down his script, he changed his mind, cast Gloria Swanson as the silent-screen star Norma Desmond ("I'm ready for my closeup"), and won an Oscar for his screenplay.

His character-driven comedies are also legendary, and his ability to work with a variety of actors remarkable. He worked twice with one of Hollywood's most beautiful, talented, difficult and unstable actresses, Marilyn Monroe, in both "Some Like It Hot" and 1955's "The Seven-Year Itch."

During the production of "Some Like It Hot" on location in Florida, Monroe was supposed to burst into the room shared by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis and rummage through a dresser looking for a drink. Her one line was, "Where's that bourbon?"

In take after take Monroe flubbed her line. In desperation Wilder had the words pasted into every drawer Monroe opened, but she still couldn't deliver the line. After 60 takes Wilder reportedly told her, "Don't worry, we'll get it" -- to which a confused Monroe replied, "Get what?"

After his experience with Monroe on "Some Like It Hot," Wilder said he would never work with the actress again.

"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.

Acerbic wit

Wilder & Lemmon
Wilder, foreground, gives actor Jack Lemmon some direction during the filming of Wilder's 1963 movie "Irma La Douce."  

For many, it's his hard-edged dramas featuring flawed anti-heroes that were perhaps his greatest accomplishments: William Holden in "Sunset Blvd." and 1953's "Stalag 17," Ray Milland's deeply troubled alcoholic in "The Last Weekend," and Kirk Douglas in 1951's "The Big Carnival" were characters Wilder painted with clear eyes, without a trace of romance.

In the last 20 years, Wilder was given many honors. The Motion Picture Academy gave him its Irving Thalberg award in 1988. He also received a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute the same year.

Four of Wilder's movies made the AFI's list of the 100 best American movies of the 20th century. "Some Like It Hot" was picked the funniest film of all time on another AFI list.

Still, Wilder, known by many as an engaging raconteur, also had his fair share of detractors over the years. He was accused of being too blunt and deeply cynical. It was said he had an acerbic wit and did not suffer fools lightly.

He had "a mind full of razor blades," said Holden, who worked with Wilder several times.

Nevertheless, Wilder was one of Hollywood's most perceptive and consistently iconoclastic filmmakers who constantly pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in his craft.

"Never bore people," he said, "And if you have something important to say, wrap it in chocolate."

Wilder is survived by his wife, Audrey, whom he married in 1949. He was previously married to Judith Coppicus.


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