Born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906, in Sucha, Galicia, Austria-Hungary, which is now Sucha Beskidzka, Malopolskie, Poland, Billy Wilder would go on to become a world-renowned filmmaker, director, screenwriter, producer, artist, and journalist. His parents ran a cafe in Sucha’s train station. His mother, grandmother, and stepfather would die in the Holocaust. His brother W. Lee Wilder (1904-1982) also worked in film.
Mr. Wilder had intended to become a lawyer, attending the University of Vienna in prelaw, but dropped out to become a sports reporter for a Viennese newspaper, which led him to Berlin and the crime beat at another paper in 1926. Also during that year he served as interpreter for band leader Paul Whiteman on tour, his introduction to the performing arts. He became a screenwriter in the late 1920s on Menschen am Sonntag (1930), and continued writing screenplays before leaving for Paris in 1933 to evade the rise of the Nazi Party. In Paris he made his directing debut co-directing Mauvaise Graine (1934) with Alexander Esway, and soon enough left for the United States, speaking no English. He moved to Hollywood, shared an apartment with Peter Lorre, learned the language and was able to break into films here.
Partnering with writer Charles Brackett in 1938, they wrote film classics such as Ninotchka (1939) and Ball of Fire (1941). Growing into a producer-director team, in 1942, they created, among others, Five Graves to Cairo (1943), The Lost Weekend (1945), and Sunset Boulevard (1950). Mr. Wilder already had done Double Indemnity in 1944 without Mr. Brackett, who objected to the disreputable nature of the characters, and the pair soon went their separate ways.
Mr. Wilder would go forth to produce Ace in the Hole (1951), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960). He was the first to win Academy Awards for producer, director, and screenwriter all for the same film, for The Apartment.
Billy Wilder went on to create so many iconoclastic films – unusual both in subject matter and in groundbreaking creativity, including The Seven-Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, and Love in the Afternoon. In the 1960s he made One, Two, Three, Irma La Douce, The Fortune Cookie, and Kiss Me, Stupid. Having been nominated for 20 Academy Awards, he won six and also in 1988 was given the Irving G. Thalberg Award for consistently high quality of motion-picture production. According to IMDb, he worked on and initially had wanted to direct Schindler’s List. Mr. Wilder’s mentor was Ernst Lubitsch, and he kept a sign in his office, “How would Lubitsch do it?”
Mr. Wilder’s last film was Buddy Buddy (1981) with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. He died on the same day as Dudley Moore and Milton Berle, March 27, 2002.
Billy Wilder’s mother called him “Billy” from a tender age, as she idolized Buffalo Bill Cody, and American culture.