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Robert Wise, 91; Director Won Oscars for ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘West Side Story’

Times Staff Writer

Robert Wise, the highly honored film editor-turned-director who won four Academy Awards for producing and directing “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music,” died Wednesday. He was 91.

Wise, who edited Orson Welles’ landmark “Citizen Kane” and Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons,” became ill at home Wednesday morning and died of heart failure at UCLA Medical Center, said Lawrence Mirisch, a family friend and a motion picture agent.

Mirisch said Wise was buoyant in celebrating his 91st birthday, which was Saturday, at a party over the weekend with close friends.

“He was always treated with great deference and it was not for what he accomplished in films, but for who he was as a human being,” Mirisch said.

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Michael Apted, president of the Directors Guild of America, said in a statement that Wise’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.”

In a directing career that began in 1944 when he took over the reins of the stylish horror classic “The Curse of the Cat People” in mid-production, Wise defied being pigeonholed.

Earning a reputation as a disciplined and impeccable craftsman, he worked in virtually every genre -- from high drama and romantic comedy to film noir and the supernatural.

Among the better-known of his 40 films:

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“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), the landmark science fiction thriller starring Michael Rennie; “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956), the biopic starring Paul Newman as world middleweight champion Rocky Graziano; “I Want to Live!” (1958), a psychological study of a woman awaiting execution in the gas chamber, which earned Susan Hayward a best actress Oscar; “The Haunting” (1963), a classic haunted-house thriller co-starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom; and “The Sand Pebbles” (1966), an epic-length war drama that earned Steve McQueen his only Academy Award nomination.

Other Wise films include “The Body Snatcher,” “The Set-Up,” “Executive Suite,” “Run Silent Run Deep,” “Odds Against Tomorrow,” “Two for the Seesaw,” “The Andromeda Strain,” “The Hindenburg” and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”

Wise had the distinction of having not only two films on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time as a director (“West Side Story” at No. 41 and “The Sound of Music” at No. 55), but as an editor he played a key role on the No. 1 film on the list, “Citizen Kane,” for which he received his first Oscar nomination.

In 1998, the modest and self-effacing filmmaker became the 26th recipient of the AFI’s life achievement award, joining the ranks of fellow directors John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Welles in receiving what is widely considered the film industry’s highest career honor.

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“Some of the more esoteric critics claim that there’s no Robert Wise style or stamp,” Wise said at the time. “My answer to that is that I’ve tried to approach each genre in a cinematic style that I think is right for that genre. I wouldn’t have approached ‘The Sound of Music’ the way I approached ‘I Want to Live!’ for anything, and that accounts for a mix of styles.”

Director Martin Scorsese, who joined fellow director Oliver Stone in campaigning for Wise to receive the AFI honor, said at the time that he respected Wise for tackling so many types of films.

“I supported him because he represents the American tradition of excellence and honesty and integrity,” Scorsese told the Chicago Tribune. “In a sense, he was the Steven Spielberg of his time.”

Wise’s background as a film editor was invaluable training for his work as a director, Scorsese said.

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“I think editors know so much about how to tell a story with pictures,” Scorsese said. “It’s such an important facet of becoming a film director to know how footage can be controlled and manipulated. Every one of his films betrayed that wonderful beginning he had.”

The son of a meatpacker, Wise was born in Winchester, Ind., on Sept. 10, 1914. Growing up in Connersville, another small Indiana town, he fell in love with the movies: He would see three or four matinees a week or, as he once recalled, “as often as I had change in my pocket.”

Wise also developed an interest in writing -- he was sports editor of his high school paper -- and after graduating in 1931, he enrolled in nearby Franklin College with the intention of studying journalism.

But the Depression forced him to drop out of college and find work.

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His older brother, David, was working in the accounting department at RKO Studios and, in 1933, Wise headed to Hollywood. He landed a job in RKO’s editing department as a $25-a-week “film porter,” whose job consisted of transporting prints between the projection and cutting rooms.

He quickly moved into sound effects and after two years became an assistant to master film editor Billy Hamilton, who taught Wise that “pace is not necessarily just length, it’s interest.”

By 1939, Wise was sharing screen credit as an editor on “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” His first solo effort as an editor was the witty 1940 film “My Favorite Wife,” starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.

Then came Welles’ 1941 masterpiece, “Citizen Kane,” which Wise considered “a high point in a lucky life.”

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“I got a call from someone at the studio who asked if I would like to cut a movie with Welles, who was already well-known from the Mercury Theater and that radio play of ‘The War of the Worlds,’ ” Wise recalled in a 2001 interview with the Detroit Free Press. “We met, and I recall being terribly impressed.”

“Citizen Kane” was not particularly difficult to edit, Wise told the New York Times in a 1998 interview, primarily because of the work of cinematographer Gregg Toland.

“You would see those extraordinary dailies every day, the marvelous photography and angles and great scenes with actors that were new to the screen, and know it was quite special,” he said. “And to think that Welles was 25, and it was his first film. Remarkable really.”

In audio commentary for a DVD release of a restored “Citizen Kane,” director Peter Bogdanovich and film critic Roger Ebert credit Wise for the film’s innovative editing and cite as an example the famous series of breakfast-room scenes, which illustrate Kane’s disintegrating marriage over a period of years.

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Although Welles was later prone to insinuating that he had edited “Kane” himself, Wise said Welles “basically left the original assembly up to me.”

“We would generally meet in the morning and again in the afternoon; then he would come in after shooting had wrapped and look at what I’d done and make the usual suggestions: ‘Don’t cut away that quickly from the close-up,’ that sort of thing. We had a pretty lively give-and-take, as I remember, but no major blowups.... We worked well together.”

So well that Welles, whom Wise called “as close to a genius as anyone I’ve ever met,” asked him to edit his next film, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” a turn-of-the-century drama about a prosperous Midwestern family whose fortunes decline with the arrival of the automobile.

The 1942 film became known as one of the most notorious examples of studio interference in Hollywood history, with Welles maintaining that the studio “destroyed ‘Ambersons’ and it destroyed me.”

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The original 131-minute cut of the film proved to be a disaster at a sneak preview, with “people walking out and laughing in all the wrong places,” Wise recalled.

“The studio demanded we cut it, and when we did, we had severe continuity problems. Orson was away in South America [working on a documentary film], so I was asked to direct a few linking scenes that would help the story make more sense.”

Wise said his contributions to the film, which was trimmed to 88 minutes and given a perfunctory release, were negligible.

“In terms of a work of art,” he said in 1976, “I grant you Orson’s original film was better. But we were faced with the realities of what the studio was demanding.”

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Wise’s first assignment as a director came unexpectedly in 1944. He was editing “The Curse of the Cat People” when B-movie producer Val Lewton asked him to replace director Gunther von Fritsch, who had run over schedule with only half the script filmed.

Wise finished filming what became a B-movie cult horror classic in 10 days and was launched on a directing career.

After a series of B movies, he graduated to A pictures in 1948, with “Blood on the Moon,” an adult western starring Robert Mitchum.

Wise directed his final theatrical feature film -- the urban musical “Rooftops” -- in 1989. But in 2000, he returned to directing one last time: “A Storm in Summer,” a drama for Showtime about racial prejudice starring Peter Falk as an embittered Jewish deli owner.

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Wise, who turned out B pictures at RKO in the 1940s in 18 days, had 21 days to shoot the cable movie. At 85, he brought it in on schedule.

In looking back over his career in his 1998 interview with the New York Times, Wise said one of his favorite films as a director was “The Haunting.” Another was “I Want to Live!,” for which Wise prepared by witnessing an execution at San Quentin.

Wise described the film’s star, Susan Hayward, as “a very good actress and a very private person. Most actors schmooze with each other on the set, sit around canvas chairs. Not Susan. She spent all the time in her dressing room.”

In the same interview, Wise said Steve McQueen proved to be a difficult and sometimes vulnerable actor during the making of “The Sand Pebbles.”

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“His mood in the morning depended on what went on at home, but I never met an actor quite like him,” Wise said. “He knew exactly what worked for him on screen and knew what he could get away with.”

Wise also described his relationship with choreographer Jerome Robbins, his “West Side Story” co-director, with whom he shared the best director Oscar, as “a little touchy.” Robbins, who had directed and choreographed the original Broadway show, oversaw the musical and dance numbers in the film, while Wise directed the nonmusical portions.

“That lasted about 60% of the filming,” Wise said. “We were getting completely behind schedule and over budget, and” the studio heads “were convinced it was because it was being co-directed.”

At that point, Wise said, Robbins was asked to leave the film, although most of the dance numbers had been rehearsed and his dance assistants stayed to finish the film.

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Wise’s biggest disappointment was “Star!,” his flop 1968 musical starring Julie Andrews as stage star Gertrude Lawrence. “It’s a hell of a good film, but it just didn’t catch on,” he said.

Wise received the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Award for his body of work from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1967.

He served as president of both the motion picture academy and the Directors Guild, from which he received its top honor, the D.W. Griffith Award. He also sat on the board of trustees of the American Film Institute and chaired its Center for Advanced Film Studies.

Wise’s first wife, Patricia, whom he married in 1942, died in 1975. He married his second wife, Millicent, in 1977. She survives him. He is also survived by a son, a daughter and a granddaughter, whose names were unavailable at press time.

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