William Wellman’s life was as colorful as the movies he directed. Born on February 29, 1896, Bill grew up outside Boston. He was a hockey-playing brawler and juvenile delinquent, who took joyrides in stolen cars and once tossed a stink bomb at his high school principal – a super-awkward move considering his Mom was a probation officer for wayward boys (like her son)!
“Wild Bill” got his nickname in WWI, flying combat missions for the French in the Lafayette Escadrille. Returning home, he befriended Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., who cast Bill in his film, The Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919). After watching his own performance, Bill promptly threw up, and pivoted to directing. In 1927, his aerial exploits helped Bill land in the director’s chair for Wings, the first Oscar-winning Best Picture. Ten years later, Bill won an Academy Award for co-writing the original A Star is Born, which he also directed.
Between 1919-58, Bill worked at every major studio, in every genre, making films that earned 32 Oscar nominations: The Public Enemy, The Ox-Bow Incident, The High and the Mighty, Nothing Sacred, plus naughty Pre-Codes (Night Nurse, Midnight Mary) and nail-biting action flicks (The Story of G.I. Joe and Battleground). Bill barked orders at greats like James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum, James Stewart and John Wayne. He even directed future First Lady Nancy Reagan in The Next Voice You Hear (1950).
Off-screen, Bill was a hell-raiser who finally found lasting happiness with Wife #5 Dorothy Coonan, a dancer whose credits include 42nd Street and Bill’s gripping Depression drama, Wild Boys of the Road. They tied the knot in 1934, had seven kids, and stayed married until Bill’s death on December 9, 1975. Before he passed, Bill told his namesake son, “I’ve lived the life of 100 men. Don’t feel sorry for me.”
Recently, I spoke with my friend, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Rob Lawe, about his legendary grandfather: “He used to give me ‘Old Hollywood’ advice, like ‘Never let a dame cry on screen!’ He felt actresses should hold onto the emotion, and just before they break, yell ‘Cut’! He really did revere tough women. Stanwyck was his favorite. They made five pictures together. He and Duke Wayne got along really well, too.”
“In 1974, UCLA did a retrospective of my grandfather’s films. He attended some screenings and answered questions. He would be the first person to tell you that he made a lot of films, but a lot of stinkers! The ones that endure are the movies that he had personal reasons for making, like A Star is Born and The Ox-Bow Incident. Otherwise, like all contract directors, he shot whatever films the studio assigned.”
I asked Rob if “Wild Bill” favored any particular themes: “He gravitated to stories about underdogs, the downtrodden. Wild Boys of the Road, Battleground, Westward the Women – they’re all about people in circumstances beyond their control who find a way to survive. I think he related to that because of his wartime experiences, which had a huge impact on his life and career.”
Which of Bill’s 81 movies does Rob like best? “A Star is Born is my favorite. I re-watched it when the Bradley Cooper-Lady Gaga version came out, and emotionally, both pictures are really powerful.” As for his grandfather? “He was probably most proud of A Star is Born, Nothing Sacred and The Ox-Bow Incident.”