Birthday: February 29, 1896
Died At Age: 79
Sun Sign: Pisces
Also Known As: William Augustus Wellman
Born in: Brookline, Massachusetts, U.S.
Famous as: Director
Spouse/Ex-: divorce), Dorothy Coonan (1934–1975), Helene Chadwick (1918–1923), his death), Margery Chapin (1925–1926), Marjorie Crawford (1931–1933)
father: Arthur Gouverneur Wellman
Died on: December 9, 1975
place of death: Los Angeles, California, U.S.
U.S. State: Massachusetts
awards: Academy Award for Best Director (1937)
William A. Wellman was an American film director especially known for his crime, adventure and action genre films. He also directed several well-regarded satirical comedies. Beginning his career as an actor, he soon moved behind the camera and became a director, producer and consultant. Direction was what gave him the greatest satisfaction and he earned much glory for directing the World War I action movie, ‘Wings’ which became the first motion picture to ever win an Academy Award for Best Picture. The son of an insurance broker who hailed from an upper-class English family, William was a troublemaker as a youngster. Intelligent and restless, he was a mischievous boy who got expelled from high school for delinquent behavior. He took up odd jobs as a teenager and also played professionally for a minor league hockey team. It was during a hockey match that the good looking youngster caught the eye of actor and director, Douglas Fairbanks, who suggested that he become an actor. After serving in the army during the World War I, Wellman ventured into Hollywood and began his career as an actor. However, before long he realized that his true interest was in directing films and not starring in them. Over the course of his career that spanned almost four decades, he directed many films that are now considered an immortal part of Hollywood history.
Childhood & Early Life
William Augustus Wellman was born on February 29, 1896, in Brookline, Massachusetts, U.S,. to Arthur Gouverneur Wellman and Celia. His father was an insurance broker while his mother served as a probation officer for "wayward boys" (juvenile delinquents) for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
As a young boy, he was a trouble maker and was expelled from Newton High School in Newton Highlands for dropping a stink bomb on the principal's head. He drifted as a teenager, taking up odd jobs.
He worked as a candy salesman and cotton salesman for a while before finding work in a lumber yard. This job too did not last long and he was fired for losing control of a truck and driving it through the side of a barn.
Ultimately he ended up playing professional ice hockey in Massachusetts. During a match at the Colonial Theatre in Boston, the good-looking Wellman caught the attention of actor Douglas Fairbanks who felt that the youngster had a good prospect of an acting career. Wellman, however, was more interested in aviation at that time.
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William A. Wellman pursued his passion for aviation with the help of his uncle and joined the air wing of the French Foreign Legion as a 19 year old. In France he served as a pilot with the famous Lafayette Flying Corps (better known as the Lafayette Escadrille). His flying career was a perilous one and he barely escaped with his life on a few occasions.
He was recruited by the US Army Air Corps (AAC) in 1918 and sent back to the US where he was stationed at Rockwell Field, in San Diego to teach combat fighting tactics to the new AAC pilots. During this time he became re-acquainted with Fairbanks who promised to help him in his entry into films.
Wellman secured an acting part as the juvenile lead of ‘The Knickerbocker Buckaroo’ in 1919 which was followed by the role of a young officer in ‘Evangeline’ the same year. However, he was fired from the latter for slapping the leading lady who happened to be the wife of the director Raoul Walsh.
By this time the ambitious Wellman had realized that he had no true interest in acting. He was more fascinated by the idea of getting behind the camera and directing pictures. Wellman made his uncredited directorial debut in 1920 with ‘The Twins of Suffering Creek.’
He was first credited as a director in 1923 with the Buck Jones western ‘Second Hand Love’ and ‘The Man Who Won’, both released on the same day. The director made several forgettable low-budget movies before getting the chance to direct ‘Wings’, a major war drama dealing with fighter pilots during World War I.
The 1930s was a prolific period for Wellman who directed a string of commercially successful films that were also well received by the critics. His films from this period include ‘The Public Enemy’ (1931), ‘A Star Is Born’ (1937), ‘Nothing Sacred’ (1937), and ‘Beau Geste'.
His successful career continued through the World War II during which he made outstanding films including ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ (1943) and ‘Story of G.I. Joe’ (1945). In the period following the war, he made yet another war movie, ‘Battleground’ (1949), which came to be regarded a classic.
Two notable films from the later years of his career are ‘Island in the Sky’ (1953) and ‘The High and the Mighty’ (1954), both starring and co-produced by John Wayne. His last film was ‘Lafayette Escadrille’ (1958) following which he retired from direction.
His 1927 film ‘Wings’ became the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture at the 1st Academy Awards ceremony, the only fully silent film to do so. The romantic action-war film, set during the World War I, earned praise for its technical prowess and realistic air-combat sequences.
He directed the romantic drama ‘A Star Is Born’, a film starring Janet Gaynor as an aspiring Hollywood actress, and Fredric March as a fading movie star who helps launch her career. The film was a commercial as well as critical success which was nominated in seven categories at the Academy Awards.
Awards & Achievements
William A. Wellman won the Academy Award for Best Director for ‘A Star Is Born’ in 1937.
The Directors Guild of America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1973.
He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6125 Hollywood Blvd.
Personal Life & Legacy
Willaim A. Wellman was married four times. His first marriage to Helene Chadwick in 1918 ended in divorce in 1923 though they had separated long before.
His second marriage to Margery Chapin, daughter of Frederic Chapin, in 1925 ended the very next year. His third marriage to Marjorie Crawford too ended within a couple of years.
His fourth and final marriage was to actress Dorothy Coonan in 1934. The couple had seven children and remained together for more than four decades until Wellman’s death.
He suffered from leukemia during his last months and died on December 9, 1975, at the age of 79.