photo by Alan Light, Creative Commons License

Robert Earl Wise was born on September 10, 1914 in Winchester, Indiana, the youngest of three sons of Olive R. (Longenecker) and Earl Waldo Wise, a meat packer. His parents were both of Pennsylvania Dutch (German) descent. At age nineteen, the avid moviegoer came into the film business through an odd job at RKO Radio Pictures. A head sound effects editor at the studio recognized Wise’s talent, and made Wise his protégé.

Everything Robert Wise touched became the stuff of legend. His films would go on to be held up as examples of the finest film making in the history of the art.

Around 1941, Orson Welles was in need of an editor for Citizen Kane (1941), and Wise did a splendid job. Welles really liked his work and ideas. Wise started as a director with some B-movies, and his career went on quickly, and he made many classic movies. His last theatrical film, Rooftops (1989), proved that he was a filmmaker still in full command of his craft in his 80s. The carefully composed images, tight editing, and unflagging pace make one wish that Wise had not stayed away from the camera for very long. Robert Wise died of heart failure on September, 14, 2005, just four days after his 91st birthday.

Born in Winchester, Indiana he grew up in nearby Connersville where as a child he became an avid film fan with an ambition of writing for films. He enrolled at Franklin College at Franklin, Indiana. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1933 following David, his older brother who’d moved there 5 years earlier and was working in R.K.O.’s accounts department.

Robert eventually joined them by working as an assistant in the editorial department and became a skilled editor. He worked with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. He then became director at R.K.O. and was then presided over by Val Lewton who gave Robert his first directing opportunities on what was expected to be a series of low budget horror films but emerged as striking psychological studies in terror such as The Curse of the Cat People, which was held in high critical esteem and which he credits Val as one of the major influences of his career.

The horror cycle was followed by The Set-Up with Robert Ryan which won the the Critics Prize at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival, then at M.G.M. his direction of Paul Newman in Somebody Up There Likes Me resulted in Newman’s emergence as a star.

He became a freelance director on such films as Run Silent Run Deep and I Want to Live!, earning an Oscar nomination for himself and an Oscar for Susan Hayward. He had a dual role of producer and director on Odds Against Tomorrow followed by West Side Story and The Haunting.

What makes Robert Wise so important to the geeking world are his contributions to cinema in our genre. He directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), The Andromeda Strain (1971), and the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), all films that redefined the genre. Wise directed the horror films The Haunting (1963) and The Body Snatcher (1945). His mundane films include West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965), and Sand Pebbles (1966).

Wise was a director, a producer, and a film editor. He was greatly respected and admired by his peers, who elected him president of the Directors Guild of America from 1971to 1975 . He was president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1985 to 1988. In 1998 he was awarded the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Film Institute. He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Film Editing for Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane (1951).

On an R.K.O. film set he met actress Patricia Doyle and married her in May 1942 and had a son Robert, born 14 March 1943. They lived at Ocean Front, Santa Monica, California.

Wise was noted for his careful attention to detail, and for keeping a close eye on the budget. Wise is no longer with us in person, but his films and his contributions to the cinematic arts will live forever.

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Susan Macdonald
Susan Macdonald

Susan Macdonald is the author of the children’s book “R is for Renaissance Faire”, as well as short stories in “Alternative Truths”, “Swords and Sorceress #30”, “Supernatural Colorado”, “Barbarian Crowns”, “Cat Tails””Under Western Stars”, and “Knee-High Drummond and the Durango Kid”. Her articles have appeared on SCIFI.radio’s web site, in The Inquisitr, and in The Millington Star. She enjoys Renaissance Faires (see book above), science fiction conventions,  Highland Games, and Native American pow-wows.