William Wellman

William Wellman
Bert Six / Warner Brothers


William Wellman
Film: North side of the 6100 block of Hollywood Boulevard
Born William Augustus Wellman on Feb. 26, 1896 in Brookline, Mass.
Died Dec. 9, 1975 of leukemia in Brentwood, Calif.

William A. Wellman was a swashbuckling figure who directed 82 motion pictures.

He directed such films as the 1927 classic, "Wings," the original "Beau Geste" and "A Star Is Born," "Public Enemy" (which made James Cagney a star), "The Ox-Bow Incident," "The Story of GI Joe" and the "High and the Mighty."

Hollywood was full of legends about the director, whose nickname was "Wild Bill" and who also was a World War I flying ace and barnstorming pilot. Columnist Hedda Hopper once wrote that he "directs a picture like a general trying to break out of a beachhead" and that he was "as hard as nails" with actors, had no patience with "softies" and sometimes earned their hate.

"But when they see the finished products, the hate turns to love," the columnist wrote.

Wellman made no secret of his dislike for producers and certain actions. In the first volume of his memoirs, titled, "A Short Time for Insanity," he referred to animosity between himself and Spencer Tracy, saying that "when we got together there was usually a fistfight."

The truth about Wellman's own life is probably more colorful than the legends.

After quitting school and becoming a professional ice hockey player, he joined France's Lafayette Flying Corps and, at 21, was flying Nieuports before the United States was in World War I.

He switched to the Lafayette Escadrille after the Americans joined the war and became an ace. After the war he became a barnstormer and wingwalker, mixing that daredevil occupation with that of flight instructor at Rockwell Field in San Diego.

He had met Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and sometimes had occasion to land his plane on Fairbanks' Hollywood polo field. The actor told Wellman to look him up if he wanted a job in movies and Wellman did.

Wellman acted in a few films and wanted the director's seat. His first directing credit was for a picture called "The Twins of Suffering Creek." While filming "Wings," he reportedly decided his pilots were not flying to his standards and took a plane up himself to show them how. He put it through a series of stunts and then crashed. Climbing out of the wreckage, he turned to the openmouthed pilots and said, "Like that!"

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Points of interest

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    Academy Awards

    Year Category Work
    1937 Best Director A Star Is Born Nomination
    1937 Best Original Story A Star Is Born Win*
    1949 Best Director Battleground Nomination
    1954 Best Director The High and the Mighty Nomination
    * A joint nomination shared with other people.

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