William Augustus Wellman was an American movie director, noted for directing the film which received the first Academy Award for Best Picture, Wings (1927). Throughout his long career, during which Wellman helmed over 80 films, he was a prolific director of crime, adventure and action films, often focusing on aviation themes, a particular passion. He also directed several acclaimed satirical comedies.
Wellman's father, Arthur Gouverneur Wellman, was a New England Brahmin of English-Welsh-Scottish and Irish descent. William was a great-great-great grandson of Francis Lewis of New York, one of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence. His much beloved mother was an Irish immigrant named Cecilia McCarthy.
Wellman was kicked out of Newton High School in Newton Highlands, Massac
husetts, for dropping a stink bomb on the principal's head. Ironically, his mother was a probation officer who was asked to address Congress on the subject of juvenile delinquency. Wellman worked as a salesman and then at a lumber yard, before ending up playing professional ice hockey, which is where he was first seen by Douglas Fairbanks, who suggested that with Wellman's good looks he could become a film actor.
During World War I Wellman enlisted in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps as an ambulance driver. While in Paris, Wellman joined the French Foreign Legion and was assigned in 3 December 1917 as a fighter pilot and the first American to join N.87 escadrille in the Lafayette Flying Corps (not the sub-unit Lafayette Escadrille as usually stated), where he earned himself the nickname "Wild Bill" and received the Croix de Guerre with two palms. N.87, les Chats Noir (Black Cat Group) was stationed at Lunéville in the Alsace-Lorraine sector and was equipped with Nieuport 17 and later Nieuport 24 "pursuit" aircraft. Wellman's combat experience culminated in three recorded "kills", along with five probables, although he was ultimately shot down. Wellman survived the crash but he walked with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life.
After the Armistice, Wellman returned to the United States, wrote a book about his exploits (with the help of a ghostwriter), and joined the United States Army Air Service. Stationed at Rockwell Field, San Diego, he taught combat tactics to new pilots.
While in San Diego, Wellman would fly to Hollywood for the weekends in his Spad fighter, using Fairbanks' polo field in Bel Air as a landing strip. Fairbanks was fascinated with the true-life adventures of "Wild Bill" and promised he would get Wellman a job in the movie business, which he did, getting him the juvenile lead in The Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919). Wellman was then hired for the role of a young officer in Evangeline (1919), but was fired for slapping the leading lady, who happened to be director Raoul Walsh's wife.
It didn't matter, because Wellman hated being an actor, thought it was unmanly, and disliked how he looked on film. He soon switched to working behind the screen, aiming to be a director, and progressed up the line as "a messenger boy, as an assistant cutter, an assistant property man, a property man, an assistant director, second unit director and eventually... director." His first assignment as an assistant director for Bernie Durning provided him with a work ethic that he adopted for future film work. One strict rule that Durning enforced was no fraternization with screen femme fatales, which almost immediately Wellman broke, leading to a confrontation and a thrashing from the director. Despite his transgression, both men became lifelong friends, and Wellman steadily progressed to more difficult first unit assignments.
Wellman made his directorial debut in 1920 at Fox with The Twins of Suffering Creek, for which he has not credited - the first films he was credited with directing were The Man Who Won and Second Hand Love, released on the same day in 1923. After directing a dozen low-budget "horse opera" films (some of which he would rather forget), Wellman was hired by Paramount in 1927 to direct Wings, a major war drama dealing with fighter pilots during World War I that was highlighted by air combat and flight sequences. The film culminates with the epic Battle of Saint-Mihiel. It was the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.
Wellman's other notable films include The Public Enemy (1931), the original version of A Star Is Born (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937), the 1939 version of Beau Geste starring Gary Cooper, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Lady of Burlesque (1943), The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), Battleground (1949) and two films starring and co-produced by John Wayne, Island in the Sky (1953) and The High and the Mighty (1954).
While he was primarily a director, Wellman also produced ten films, one of them uncredited, all of which he also directed. His last film was Lafayette Escadrille (1958), which he produced, directed, wrote the story for and narrated. He wrote the screenplay for two other films that he directed, and one film that he did not direct, 1936's The Last Gangster. He also wrote the story for A Star Is Born and received a story credit for both remakes in 1954 and 1976.
Wellman was well known in Hollywood for his disdain for actors in general, and actresses in particular. Many actors disliked working with him, because he bullied them to get the performance he wanted. Wellman liked to work fast. Even though he hated their narcissism, he preferred working with men, because they didn't need as much preparation time before shooting as women did. Despite all this, Wellman managed to elicit Oscar-nominated performances from seven different actors: Fredric March and Janet Gaynor (A Star Is Born), Brian Donlevy (Beau Geste), Robert Mitchum (The Story of G.I. Joe), James Whitmore (Battleground), and Jan Sterling and Claire Trevor (The High and Mighty).
In his career, Wellman won a single Academy Award, for the story of A Star Is Born. He was nominated as best director three times, for A Star Is Born, Battleground and The High and Mighty, for which he was also nominated by the Directors Guild of America as best director. In 1973, the DGA honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
William Wellman died in 1975 of leukemia. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at sea.