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5 Things You Didn't Know About Billy Wilder

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When talking about director and screenwriter Billy Wilder, one really only needs to list the titles of his many triumphs in genres as disparate as light comedy and film noir. The Apartment. Double Indemnity. Sunset Boulevard. Some Like It Hot. The Lot Weekend. Sabrina. Stalag 17. The Austrian-American filmmaker was so prolific and so brilliant that even his minor works like Ace in the Hole, a scathing indictment of journalism, are unforgettable. I really can't articulate just how wonderful Wilder's films are, but I can share a few things you might not have known about him:

1. Before He Was a Director, He Was a Gigolo

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Wilder was born in Sucha Beskidzka in what is now Poland in 1906, and attended what he later called "the worst high school in Vienna." He eventually ended up at the University of Vienna to fulfill his parents' dreams of becoming a lawyer. Fortunately for the future of film, Wilder didn't love the ivory tower and quickly dropped out of college to become a journalist in Berlin.

It was tough to make ends meet as a writer, though, so Wilder supplemented his income by working as a gigolo. According to the director this was no Midnight Cowboy stuff, though, and Wilder went into the line of work mostly hoping it would make good research for a series of articles. His job mostly consisted of dining, dancing, and chatting with lonely old ladies. In the excellent book-length interview Conversations With Wilder by director Cameron Crowe, Wilder claims that he never got frisky with any clients "because they would come with their husbands"¦and the ladies were corpulent ladies, elderly ladies."

2. He Paid Attention to His Extras

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One of the most memorable scenes in The Lost Weekend also ended up being one of the most important scenes in Wilder's life. Ray Milland's alcoholic writer character heads to a fancy nightclub for drinks, only to realize he doesn't have enough cash to cover his tab. To drum up the money, he filches a fellow patron's purse, but he gets caught and is given the heave-ho from the bar. It's perhaps the most embarrassing and crucial scene in the movie.

As Milland is being led from the bar, the arm of a hatcheck girl enters the frame to hand him his hat. As Wilder later told Cameron Crowe, "I only saw the arm, and I fell in love with the arm." Audrey Young, the Paramount extra on the other end of the arm and a singer in Tommy Dorsey's band, became Mrs. Billy Wilder in 1949, and the two stayed together until the director's death in 2002.

(Another interesting note about The Lost Weekend: Since it was the first sweeping portrayal of alcoholism on film, the country's booze peddlers were none too eager to have it hit the screen. The liquor industry banded together and offered Paramount $5 million to suppress the film, but the studio refused. Wilder later joked to Crowe, "If they'd offered me the five million, I would have.")

3. He Was No Raymond Chandler Fan

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If Wilder liked a collaborator, they worked together over and over again. Wilder and longtime writing partner I.A.L. Diamond collaborated on eight scripts, including the screenplays for Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, and actors like Jack Lemmon, William Holden, and Fred MacMurray pop up in multiple Wilder films.

This happy arrangement never came together with mystery icon Raymond Chandler. Paramount hired Chandler to work with Wilder on adapting James M. Cain's novel Double Indemnity into a screenplay, and the two apparently spent much of the time at each other's throats. Wilder admittedly valued Chandler's ear for dialogue, but the aging writer apparently had no interest in working within the structure of a screenplay. As Wilder told Crowe, "[T]here was a lot of Hitler in Chandler," and the two fought over everything from whether or not Wilder could have a martini at lunch— Chandler was a recovering alcoholic—to the rules of etiquette—Chandler once quit in a huff when Wilder asked him to close the blinds without saying "please."

For his part, the notoriously cantankerous Chandler didn't seem to enjoy the process any more than Wilder did. He wrote in his letters, "I went to Hollywood in 1943 to work with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity. This was an agonizing experience and probably shortened my life, but I learned from it as much about screen writing as I am capable of learning, which is not very much." From hearing these stories, you wouldn't think that the teaming would have resulted in arguably film noir's greatest masterpiece, would you? It's amazing what Barbara Stanwyck in an anklet can do.

4. He Brought Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau Together

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Although the long, frequently hilarious collaboration between Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau is most notable for their work in The Odd Couple, it was actually Wilder who brought the two together for the first time in 1966's The Fortune Cookie.

The film tells the story of a CBS sports cameraman (Lemmon) who gets mildly injured while covering a football game, only to have his sleazy personal-injury lawyer brother-in-law (Matthau) railroad him into faking paralysis for a big cash settlement. If you haven't seen it, it's an extremely funny movie, particularly Matthau's performance as "Whiplash Willie" Gingrich, which won him an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. As Wilder later said, "You just know with those two, they would be funny together. They're comedians."

As long as we're giving Wilder credit for changing peoples' careers, it's worth recounting the story of a waiter who asked an elderly Wilder for advice on acting. Wilder told the young man he was too ugly to be an actor, so if he wanted to break into the business he'd have to write a part for himself. The waiter took the advice to heart, and that's how Billy Bob Thornton penned himself a starring role in Sling Blade.

5. He Tried to Make Schindler's List


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When Thomas Keneally published Schindler's Ark in 1983, Wilder tried to get the film rights to the book so he could make it his final film. With Wilder at the helm, the film would certainly have been quite different. After the director came to America, most of his family, including his mother, grandmother, and stepfather, were killed at Auschwitz, and Wilder wanted to make the Schindler film as a tribute to them.

However, Wilder hit a pretty big roadblock even as early as 1983: Steven Spielberg already owned the rights. Wilder tried to talk Spielberg into letting him direct the film, but to no avail. When Schindler's List eventually came out ten years later, Wilder admitted that while he would have made the picture very differently, Spielberg did a terrific job and crafted "a very important picture."

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here.

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5 Things You Didn't Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs, but there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams' mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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5 Things You Should Know About Robert Todd Lincoln
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Robert Todd Lincoln was Abraham Lincoln's oldest son and the only Lincoln child to survive into adulthood. While he didn't make quite the mark on history that his father did, Robert Lincoln had a pretty interesting life himself. Let's take a look at five things you might not know about him:

1. He Was on Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Staff

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Part of Abraham Lincoln's mystique lies in his humble roots as a self-made man who found education where he could. His eldest son didn't have to go through quite as many trials and tribulations to do some learning, though. Robert left Springfield, Illinois, to attend boarding school at New Hampshire's elite Phillips Exeter Academy when he was a young man, and he later graduated from Harvard during his father's presidency.

After completing his undergrad degree, Robert stuck around Cambridge to go to Harvard Law School, but that arrangement didn't last very long. After studying law for just a few months, Lincoln received a commission as a captain in the army. Lincoln's assignment put him on Ulysses S. Grant's personal staff, so he didn't see much fighting. He did get a nice view of history, though; Lincoln was present as part of Grant's junior staff at Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

After the war ended, Lincoln moved to Chicago with his mother and brother and wrapped up his legal studies.

2. The Booth Family Did Him a Favor

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In 1863 or 1864, young Robert Lincoln was traveling by train from New York to Washington during a break from his studies at Harvard. He hopped off the train during a stop at Jersey City, only to find himself on an extremely crowded platform. To be polite, Lincoln stepped back to wait his turn to walk across the platform, his back pressed to one of the train's cars.

This situation probably seemed harmless enough until the train started moving, which whipped Lincoln around and dropped him into the space between the platform and train, an incredibly dangerous place to be.

Lincoln probably would have been dead meat if a stranger hadn't yanked him out of the hole by his collar. That stranger? None other than Edwin Booth, one of the most celebrated actors of the 19th century and brother of eventual Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Lincoln immediately recognized the famous thespian "“ this was sort of like if George Clooney pulled you from a burning car today "“ and thanked him effusively. The actor had no idea whose life he had saved until he received a letter commending him for his bravery in saving the President's son a few months later.

3. He Had a Strange Knack for Being Near Assassinations

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Lee's surrender wasn't the only history Lincoln ended up witnessing, although things got a bit grislier for him after Appomattox. As he arrived back in Washington in April 1865 Lincoln's parents invited him to go see Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater with them. The young officer was so exhausted after his journey that he begged off so he could get a good night's sleep. That night, of course, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln's father, and Robert Todd was with the celebrated president when he passed away the next morning.

By 1881, Lincoln's political lineage and prominence as a lawyer qualified him for a national office, and he became Secretary of War under the newly inaugurated James A. Garfield. That July, Lincoln was scheduled to travel to Elberon, New Jersey, by train with the President, but the trip never took off. Before Lincoln and Garfield's train could leave the station, Charles Guiteau shot the Garfield, who died of complications from the wound two months later.

Oddly, that wasn't all for Lincoln, though. Two decades passed without a presidential assassination, but Lincoln's strange luck reared its head again in 1901. Lincoln traveled to Buffalo at the invitation of President William McKinley to attend the Pan-American Exposition. Although he arrived a bit late to the even, Lincoln was on his way to meet McKinley when anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot the president twice at close range.

Following these three bits of bad luck Lincoln refused to attend any presidential functions. He dryly noted that there was "a certain fatality about the presidential function when I am present."

4. He Realized His Mom Was a Little Nutty

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Mary Todd Lincoln is fairly widely renowned today for being mentally ill, but it wasn't quite such an open secret when she was still alive. Robert, however, realized that his mother needed psychiatric help so she didn't become a danger to herself or an embarrassment to her family, so he had her involuntarily committed to a mental hospital in 1875 following a hearing that declared her insane.

Mary Todd was none too pleased about this plan. She not only snuck letters to her lawyer to help her escape from the institution, she also wrote newspaper editors in an effort to convince the public of her sanity. Mary Todd's ploy worked; at a second sanity hearing in 1876 she was declared sane and released from the Batavia, Illinois, sanatorium to which she'd been confined. However, by this point she'd been publicly humiliated and never really patched up her relationship with Robert before her death in 1882.

5. He Made Some Serious Dough on the Railroads

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Once he got his legal practice up and running, Lincoln found a particularly lucrative clientele in the booming railroad industry. He spent most of his career working as a corporate lawyer for various railroads and train-related companies; the only breaks were his four-year stint as Secretary of War under Garfield and successor Chester A. Arthur and a four-year hitch as a minister to Britain under President Benjamin Harrison.

One of Lincoln's major clients was the Pullman Palace Car Company, for which he served as general counsel. When founder George Pullman died in 1897, Lincoln became president of the company, and in 1911 he became chairman of the Pullman Company's board. His lofty position in one of the country's most lucrative companies made him a millionaire and enabled Lincoln to build a sprawling estate, Hildene, in Manchester, Vermont.

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