A dexterous performer with an athletic streak, comfortable in “A” and “B” productions of any genre, and sturdy in front of or behind the camera, Cornel Wilde remains a fascinating screen presence today. Because of his chameleon-like career, the Hungarian native remains hard to pigeonhole, so surprising were his career choices.
Along with his sister, the eight-year-old Kornel Weisz came to New York in 1920 with his parents and often joined his father, a travelling salesman, on his selling excursions. The young Cornel had a penchant for athletic endeavors, and had plans to go for advanced studies in order to become a doctor. However, he caught the theater bug, and shelved his medical school plans (as well as a chance to fence in the 1936 Olympics) for a spot in a play.
After marrying fellow thespian Marjory Heinzen (who later changed her name to Patricia Knight), Wilde got some good roles on the New York stage, including an attention-getting part as Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in Laurence Olivier’s 1940 production of Romeo and Juliet.
Thanks to his impressive Shakespearean turn, the handsome actor started to get steady work in movies—such as High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart, and Life Begins at Eight-Thirty with Ida Lupino and Monty Wooley—before landing the coveted part of Polish composer Frederic Chopin in the 1945 biopic A Song to Remember. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, with Wilde garnering a nomination for Best Actor.
Today, A Song to Remember has a campy appeal, with the tubercular Chopin coughing blood on the piano keys, and the composer’s lover George Sand (Merle Oberon) advising him to ”discontinue that so-called Polonaise jumble you’ve been playing for days.”
Film critic James Agee called the picture as ”infuriating and as funny a misrepresentation of an artist’s life and work as I have ever seen.”
Still, A Song to Remember’s success helped spark interest in Chopin’s music, while vaulting Wilde into higher profiled lead roles. He was Aladdin in A Thousand and One Nights, as well as the novelist who becomes the target of obsessive, father-fixated Gene Tierney in the stellar 1946 meller Leave Her to Heaven. In Forever Amber, Otto Preminger’s 1947 version of the best-selling book about lust among 17th century nobles, Wilde is the soldier who leaves the titular character (Linda Darnell) pregnant and penniless when he deserts her to fight.
Over the following fifteen years, Wilde—who spoke five different languages—really varied his roles. He showed off his fencing prowess in such efforts as The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946), playing the Robert of Nottingham, son to Russell Hicks’ Robin Hood; At Sword’s Point (1952) in which he swashed and buckled his way as the son of D’Artagnan of the Three Musketeers (he would later play an aged D’Artagnan in 1979’s The Fifth Musketeer); and as Sir Lancelot in 1963’s Sword of Lancelot (which he also helmed).
Wilde had also snagged key parts in big Hollywood productions. In the never-on-video Centennial Summer (1946), Otto Preminger’s musical ode to the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, he was the Frenchman preparing his pavilion for exposition while having affections for sisters Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell. For The Greatest Show on Earth, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Wilde affected a French accent as “The Great Sebastian,” a debonair trapeze artist trying to gain the romantic attentions of rival aerialist Betty Hutton, even though she was previously with circus manager Charlton Heston. Then there was 1953’s Treasure of the Golden Condor, a remake of the Tyrone Power-starrer Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake, in which the strapping Wilde heads to Guatemala in hopes of finding ancient riches after his uncle unscrupulously obtains his rightful estate.
Wilde proved adept with edgier roles as well, excelling in film noir staples like Road House (1946), playing the bar manager in a tussle with boss Richard Widmark for the love of torch singing hottie Ida Lupino; and Shockproof (1949), co-written by Samuel Fuller and directed by Douglas Sirk, as a parole officer trying to straighten out murderous parolee Patricia Knight (his wife at the time). There was also Joseph H. Lewis’s brutal and subversive The Big Combo (1955), where Wilde delivered as the detective trying to save a society girl (played by his second wife, Jean Wallace) with romantic interest in a hood (Richard Conte). In Don Siegel’s scenic crime survey Edge of Eternity (1959), Wilde is a sheriff tracking down killers out to nab gold from a Grand Canyon locale.
The Big Combo also marked Wilde’s first credit as a producer. After cutting his teeth on an episode of G.E. True Theater for TV, he began working both sides of the camera, jumping head-first into directing feature films. Wilde’s career output as a filmmaker was eclectic, and, in most cases, he gave lead roles to himself and his spouse, blonde bombshell Wallace.
Wallace was absent, however, from Wilde’s most praiseworthy directing turn. It was 1966’s The Naked Prey, a rugged and sometimes brutal adventure riff on The Most Dangerous Game, in which Wilde plays a South African safari guide who finds himself on the run from a group of tribesmen that have slain the members of an elephant hunting party who disrespected them. Wilde, 53 years old when The Naked Prey was in production, proved himself in tip-top physical shape, as he was forced to run breathlessly through the wilderness, clad only in a loincloth, as his life was threatened by the oncoming natives. While the riveting and exotic film received mixed reviews on its opening, it is recognized as a cult classic today, and has received an extensive Criterion treatment on DVD.
Wilde’s other films as a director include Storm Fear (1955), an intense, noirish drama; the car racing drama Hairpin (1957); Maracaibo (1958), in which he played a fire investigator who gets involved with a novelist (Wallace) while looking into an incident in Venezuela; the well-regarded medieval epic swashbuckler Sword of Lancelot (aka Lancelot and Guinevere) (1963) ; the bold, overlooked anti-war film Beach Red (1967); the cautionary British-made science-fiction saga No Blade of Grass (1970); and Shark’s Treasure (1975), an underwater adventure tale.
In a 1986 interview, Wilde summed up his interests, particularly when it came to the subjects of the films he directed: ”I am very concerned about the environment and psychological health of this beautiful planet. Throughout my work is the idea, over and over, that we must all learn to respect one another.”
In addition to appearing and helming his own big screen projects, Wilde regularly acted in other films from the mid-1950s and on. He was the businessman hubby of scatter-brained June Allyson in the all-star Woman’s World (1954); the title role in the biopic of the philosopher/poet/mathematician Omar Khayyam (1957); the gypsy in an arranged marriage to sexy Jane Russell in the oddball Nicholas Ray drama Hot Blood (1956); and the Roman emperor who converts to Christianity—then allows his subjects to do the same–in the European production Constantine and the Cross (1961).
Meanwhile, Wilde found a second home on television. On the small screen, he played himself in episodes of both I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best, hosted NBC’s Kraft Mystery Theater, and, in the latter part of his career, took the route of many other fading thespians by making appearances on such shows as Fantasy Island, Murder She Wrote and The Love Boat.
TV offered Wilde some of his most memorable late-in-life performing turns. In a 1972 episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery called Deliveries in the Rear, Wilde memorably portrayed an unscrupulous surgeon who enlists body snatchers to procure cadavers for him. In the popular 1972 TV movie Gargoyles, he’s an anthropologist who encounters flying demons in the Nevada desert.
In 1989, eight years after he and Wallace divorced, Wilde passed away from leukemia at age 77. Although he had a Best Actor Oscar nomination to his credit, Wilde tends to be recognized more for his charismatic screen presence, his way with a sword or a bow and arrow, and his unusual directorial subjects than his acting abilities.
But Wilde was a man’s man with unexpected depth, and an enthusiasm for life and his profession that translated to both the big and small screens. And for that we say…en garde!