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Wise, Robert

Robert Wise

Best known as the director of the musical smash hits West Side Story and The Sound of Music, in the 1960s, director Robert Wise (1914–2005) had a long list of credits that included several other important films as well. Early in his career, he also served as editor on the landmark film Citizen Kane.

Wise's contributions have sometimes been overlooked by film students and historians, for he did not have one of the distinctive directorial styles that inspire passion in cinema devotees. Instead, he made films in many genres, from war dramas to horror and science fiction genre pieces, from three-handkerchief weepers to serious social tales. And, having avoided musicals for most of his career, he made two of the most famous musicals of all as his career hit its peak. If Wise was underrated by students of film, his craft was recognized by his fellow directors and industry figures, who honored him richly toward the end of his long life.

Saw Several Movies a Week

Wise was born September 10, 1914, in Winchester, Indiana, and grew up in Connersville in the east-central part of the state. His father was a meatpacker. As a youth Wise went to the movies as often as four times a week, but his first dream was to become a sportswriter. After graduating from high school in 1929 he enrolled at Indiana's Franklin College to study journalism, but the family funds ran out during the Great Depression of the early 1930s. Unable to find a job at home, he took advantage of a family connection in one of the few industries that was hiring: his brother was an accountant at the RKO film studio in Hollywood, so he went to work there in 1933 as a porter, carrying cans of film from one part of the building to another.

Spending plenty of time in RKO's cutting rooms, Wise got a practical course in film editing, and he found a place in the growing industry for his talents. His first film credit was as assistant editor on the film Stage Door in 1937, and by 1939 he was serving as editor on such major productions as a remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Charles Laughton as the unfortunate Quasimodo. He was still considered a fresh face, however, when he met Orson Welles in 1941, as Welles was laying plans for Citizen Kane, his ambitious, lightly fictionalized biography of muckraking newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.

That was what attracted Welles; he wanted someone "young and uninfluenced by tradition," according to the Independent. Wise was hired as editor, and the relationship was mutually beneficial. The clarity and intensity of Citizen Kane shaped Wise's approach to filmmaking. "There are a few things I'm sure I learned from him," Wise was quoted as saying in the Independent. "One was to try and keep the energy level high, the movement forward in the telling of the story. Another was the use of deep-focus photography. I've shot many of my films, particularly in black-and-white, with wide-angle lenses, so we could have somebody close in the foreground and still have things in the background in focus." As for Welles, although he later tried to claim credit for much of the editing himself, he benefited from a superb job by Wise; others on the set confirmed Wise's key role. Wise earned a 1941 Academy Award nomination for best editing.

Wise and Welles reunited for Welles's next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, but this time the collaboration ended less happily. Set in Indianapolis, the film was a complex family drama with an unsympathetic central character, and it tested badly among preview audiences. Executives at the financially troubled RKO panicked, demanded that the original 148-minute film be cut by about an hour, and brought in Wise to direct several new scenes that clarified the action; Welles was in South America, working on a documentary that was never finished; he felt that Wise had butchered the film, but Wise maintained that he had done the best he could under the circumstances. He was partially vindicated by the later reputation of The Magnificent Ambersons as one of the greatest of all American films, even in its shortened state. In the midst of this drama in 1942, Wise married actress Patricia Doyle. They had one son.

Directed Critically Praised Boxing Film

Although Welles may have been dismayed by Wise's actions, the new director was rewarded by RKO. He was asked to step in as director on another behind-schedule film, The Curse of the Cat People, in 1944, and when he wrapped that film in ten days he was put behind the camera for several more films. Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) was a film of a Guy de Maupassant short story, Boule de Suif, about a prostitute who saves a carriage-load of aristocrats during the Franco-Prussian War, and The Body Snatcher, starring Boris Karloff, inaugurated Wise's involvement with the horror genre. Wise was behind the camera regularly in the late 1940s, but most of his films were "B-movies," low-budget productions designed for quick consumption at neighbor-hood cinemas in the days before television. The young director scored his first high-profile success in 1949 with The Set-Up; based on a blank-verse poem about a boxer who refuses to throw a fight at the behest of an organized-crime syndicate, it was filmed in "real time," with the elapsed time of the action matching that of the film itself.

The film won raves from attendees at France's famed Cannes Film Festival, but RKO dropped Wise after being acquired by millionaire Howard Hughes in 1950. Undeterred, Wise moved to 20th Century Fox and made the melodrama Three Secrets. The following year he directed one of his most highly regarded films, the science-fiction thriller The Day the Earth Stood Still, in 1951. The film's story of an alien visitor who warns humans of the dangers of war has been taken as everything from a commentary on the Cold War to a religious allegory. Wise himself was ambiguous about the significance of the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie). "Put a beard on him and you could have the Christ figure," he is said to have remarked, according to the Daily Telegraph, but the Independent quoted him as saying that he had missed the potential significance of the fact that Klaatu takes the name Carpenter after being brought back from the dead. "Maybe I was just dumb enough that I didn't catch it," Wise said; the self-effacement was typical. Wise personally selected the composers of soundtracks for his films; he turned in this and several other cases to Bernard Herrmann, whose score was one of the first to use electronic instruments.

Wise became one of Hollywood's most versatile directors over the course of the 1950s, directing the comedy Something for the Birds (1952), several war films including The Desert Rats (1953) and Until They Sail (1957), the big-business drama Executive Suite (1954), and the unsuccessful costume epic Helen of Troy (1955). Somebody Up There Likes Me, a biography of boxer Rocky Graziano, put Wise back in the boxing ring; Graziano was slated to be played by James Dean, whose death resulted in the launch of Paul Newman's career. Wise scored another major critical success with I Want to Live! in 1958, a film that brought Susan Hayward the Academy Award for best actress and a best director nomination for Wise himself. The film concerned an unjust application of capital punishment, and Wise visited the Death Row area of a prison prior to filming in order to familiarize himself with the atmosphere.

These successes led to Wise being selected, along with choreographer Jerome Robbins, to direct the big-budget film adaptation of the Broadway musical West Side Story in 1961. The two directors worked through the kinks of the difficult dual-helm arrangement, with Wise supervising the dramatic scenes and Robbins directing the musical numbers. When the film fell behind schedule, though, Robbins was removed in what Wise, according to the Independent, called "a very uncomfortable, emotional, and difficult time for everybody." Wise, working with Robbins's assistants, succeeded in bringing the film together, and it became a major commercial success.

Diminished Sound of Music's Sentimental Aspects

In between his two major musicals, Wise made several well-regarded films including The Haunting (1963), considered a small classic of the horror genre. He was a logical choice to film The Sound of Music, a Broadway show by Rodgers and Hammerstein, in 1965, although he at first refused the assignment and had to be talked into taking on the film by screenwriter Ernest Lehman. Wise intervened to minimize some of the more treacly passages in the original, moving the song "My Favorite Things" to a scene in which lead actress Julie Andrews comforts a group of children during a thunderstorm, among other changes. Some critics found the film's juxtaposition of nuns and Nazis overly sweet anyway, but The Sound of Music became one of the most financially successful films of all time. Wise won Academy Awards for Best Director for both West Side Story and The Sound of Music.

Wise's films of the late 1960s were made on a grand scale and were not uniformly successful; the 1966 epic The Sand Pebbles did well at the box office, but Star! (1968), a sharp-edged musical film biography of stage comedienne Gertrude Lawrence, bombed despite its reuniting of Wise with Andrews. Wise always felt that the film had been underrated, and Andrews returned to satirical comedy later in her career with Victor/Victoria. Wise did somewhat better with The Andromeda Strain, a 1971 film about an alien virus running rampant on Earth.

Two more big-budget films were entrusted to Wise in the 1970s. The Hindenburg (1975), one of a series of disaster epics that absorbed moviegoers of the day, and Wise's last major film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, released in 1979. Though fans of the original television series on which it was based felt that Wise had not successfully transferred the feel of the series to film, the movie did well at the box office and launched a durable series of Star Trek films.

After the death of his wife Patricia, Wise continued to live in Hollywood; he married Millicent Franklin in 1977. He often encouraged younger filmmakers in his positions as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Directors Guild of America, and he reaped lifetime-achievement honors from those organizations. Among his admirers was director Martin Scorsese. Wise remained active, directing a musical about homeless children, Rooftops, in 1989 and making a television film, A Storm in Summer, in 2000—well into his ninth decade. Wise died in Los Angeles, California, on September 14, 2005. "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," Directors' Guild of America president Michael Apted told Variety. "We will deeply miss him."


Carr, Charmian, Forever Lies!: A Memoir of The Sound of Music, Penguin, 2001.


Chicago Tribune, September 16, 2005.

Daily Telegraph (London, England), September 16, 2005.

Daily Variety, September 16, 2005.

Entertainment Weekly, September 30, 2005.

Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), September 17, 2005.

Independent (London, England), September 16, 2005.

New York Times, September 16, 2005.

Time, September 26, 2005.

Times (London, England), September 16, 2005.


"Robert Wise," All Movie Guide, (January 1, 2006).

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Wise, Robert

WISE, Robert

Nationality: American. Born: Winchester, Indiana, 19 September 1914. Education: Studied journalism at Franklin College. Family: Married 1) Patricia Doyle, 1942, one son; 2) Millicent Franklin, 1977. Career: Hired as assistant editor at RKO, where brother was employed, 1933; editor, from 1939; took over direction of The Curse of the Cat People, 1944; independent producer for Mirisch Corporation, 1959, and for Fox, 1963. Awards: Oscar for Best Direction (with Jerome Robbins), for West Side Story, 1961; Oscar for Best Direction, and Directors Award, Directors Guild of America, for The Sound of Music, 1965; Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Academy Award, 1966.

Films as Director:


The Curse of the Cat People (co-d); Mademoiselle Fifi


The Body Snatchers


A Game of Death; Criminal Court


Born to Kill


Mystery in Mexico; Blood on the Moon


The Set-Up


Three Secrets; Two Flags West


The House on Telegraph Hill; The Day the Earth Stood Still


Destination Gobi; Something for the Birds


The Desert Rats; So Big


Executive Suite


Helen of Troy; Tribute to a Bad Man


Somebody up There Likes Me


This Could Be the Night; Until They Sail


Run Silent, Run Deep; I Want to Live


Odds against Tomorrow (+ pr)


West Side Story (co-d)


Two for the Seesaw


The Haunting (+ pr)


The Sound of Music (+ pr)


The Sand Pebbles (+ pr)




The Andromeda Strain (+ pr)


Two People (+ pr)


The Hindenburg


Audrey Rose


Star Trek: The Motion Picture


I, Zorba




A Storm in Summer (for TV)

Other Films:

(partial list)


Dance, Girl, Dance (Arzner) (ed)


Citizen Kane (Welles) (ed)


The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles) (ed)


By WISE: books—

The Film Director: A Practical Guide to Motion Picture and Television Techniques, with Richard L. Bare, IDG Worldwide Books, 1973.

The Sound of Music: The Making of America's Favorite Movie, with Julia Antopol Hirsch, Lincolnwood, 1995.

By WISE: articles—

Interview in Directors at Work, edited by Bernard Kantor and others, New York, 1970.

"Impressions of Russia," in Action (Los Angeles), July/August 1971.

"Robert Wise at RKO," an interview with Ruy Nogueira, in Focuson Film (London), Winter 1972.

"Robert Wise at Fox," an interview with Ruy Nogueira, in Focus onFilm (London), Spring 1973.

"Robert Wise Continued," an interview with Ruy Nogueira and Allen Eyles, in Focus on Film (London), Autumn 1973.

"Robert Wise to Date," an interview with Ruy Nogueira, in Focus onFilm (London), Autumn 1974.

"The Production of The Hindenburg," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), January 1976.

"Robert Wise Talks about 'The New Hollywood,"' in AmericanCinematographer (Los Angeles), July 1976.

"Audrey Rose: In Search of a Soul," an interview with R. Appelbaum, in Films and Filming (London), November 1977.

"Time and Again," an interview in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), November 1979.

"An AFI Seminar with Robert Wise and Milton Krasner ASC," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), March 1980.

"Robert Wise," an interview with L. Vincenzi, in Millimeter, March 1989.

"Robert Wise. Part One: The Noir Years," an interview with C.J. Kutner, in Bright Lights, July 1993.

"Robert Wise. Part Two: Life at the Top," an interview with C.J. Kutner, in Bright Lights, Fall 1993.

"The Past Pays Off," an interview with Filmnews, July 1995.

Interview with K.G. Shinnick, in Scarlet Street (Glen Rock), no. 25, 1997.

On WISE: books—

Grivel, Danièle, and Roland Lacourbe, Robert Wise, Paris, 1985.

Leemann, Sergio, Robert Wise on His Films: From Editing Room toDirector's Chair, Los Angeles, 1995.

Carr, Charmian, and Jean A. Strauss, Forever Liesl: A Memoir of TheSound of Music, New York, 2000.

On WISE: articles—

Stark, Samuel, "Robert Wise," in Films in Review (New York), January 1963.

"Wise Issue" of Dialogue on Film (Washington, D.C.), vol. 2, no. 1, 1972.

Stamelman, P., "Robert Wise and The Hindenburg," in Millimeter (New York), November 1975.

Guérif, F., "Nous avons gagné ce soir," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 March 1980.

"Robert Wise," in CinemAction! (Toronto), January 1992.

Johnson, S.R., "Epilogue:. . . and One Dead Woman," in Delirious, no. 2, 1992.

Szebin, F.C., "The Sound of Screaming," in Cinefantastique (Forest Park), no. 4/5, 1997.

* * *

In the early 1940s there were two young men in the editorial department at RKO who worked as editors on Val Lewton pictures: Robert Wise and Mark Robson. The latter was promoted to a full directorship of Lewton's Seventh Victim, a moody script by DeWitt Bodeen and Charles O'Neal about a cult of devil worshippers in modern Manhattan.

Meanwhile, Robson's immediate superior in the editorial department, Robert Wise, got his first directorial opportunity when the front office grew displeased with Gunther von Fritsch, who was halfway through Curse of the Cat People, and dismissed him because he was behind schedule—a cardinal sin in the days of the studios. It was natural that Robert Wise, being the editor of Curse of the Cat People, should take over and complete the film, for only he knew the continuity of what had already been shot. Wise did so admirable a job that Lewton immediately got him assigned to his unit as full director for Mademoiselle Fifi with Simone Simon and The Body Snatcher with Boris Karloff.

Wise had edited two Orson Welles films for RKO—two that became classics, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. After now being made a full director, he diligently went into an acting class because he felt that actors had a special knowledge and language of their own; it was the ideal way of seeing film from the actor's point of view. It paid off almost immediately; he got an assignment as director for The Set-Up, a realistic picture of the prize ring that made a top star of Robert Ryan and a top director of Wise as well. The Set-Up won him the Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

In 1950 Wise was at Warner Bros., where he directed a distinguished mood film, Three Secrets, and went on to direct a remake of Edna Ferber's So Big with Jane Wyman, and The Desert Rats at Twentieth Century-Fox with Richard Burton. Executive Suite at MGM raised his status a notch higher, as did Tribute to a Bad Man with James Cagney. Somebody up There Likes Me was an excellent prize-ring picture starring Paul Newman, while Run Silent, Run Deep was a splendid submarine thriller for Gable and Lancaster. I Want to Live at long last won Susan Hayward an Academy Award as Best Actress for 1958. A couple of years later Wise shared an Academy Award as Best Director with Jerome Robbins for West Side Story. He returned to the moody horror film to make one of the most memorable of all time, The Haunting, which he also produced. He was director/producer again for The Sound of Music, a top box-office winner which won him once more the Academy's Oscar as Best Director, while The Sand Pebbles, with the late Steve McQueen, also earned him admiration. Through the wide range of his work, Wise proved himself to be a highly versatile director.

—DeWitt Bodeen

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"Wise, Robert." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Wise, Robert." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . (December 11, 2017).

"Wise, Robert." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from