In 1921, Willi found himself and a young Czech man, Paul Kohner (later the famous independent agent) on the same boat to New York. Their enjoyment of the first class trip was short lived as they found they had to pay back the cost of the passage out of their $25/week salary as messengers to Universal Pictures in New York. After working in New York for several Years Wyler decided he wanted to come to Hollywood and be a director.
He soon proved himself an able craftsman, and in the early 1930s became one of Universal's greatest assets, directing such solid films as The Love Trap, Hell's Heroes, Tom Brown of Culver, and The Good Fairy. He became well-known for his merciless (some would say sadistic) insistence on multiple retakes, resulting in often award-winning and critically acclaimed performances from his actors. After leaving Universal he began a long collaboration with Samuel Goldwyn where he directed such classics as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Little Foxes (1941), The Westerner (1940), Wuthering Heights (1939), Dead End (1937), These Three (1936) and Dodsworth (1936).
Laurence Olivier, whom Wyler directed to two Oscar nominations in two films, credited Wyler with teaching him how to act for the screen. Bette Davis not only received three Oscar nominations for her screen work under Wyler, but won her second Oscar for her performance in Wyler's 1938 film Jezebel. Charlton Heston won his only nomination and Best Actor Oscar for his work in Wyler's 1959 Ben-Hur.
In 1941 Wyler directed one of the key films that galvanized support for Britain and against the Nazis in an America slow to awaken to the threat in Europe, it was Mrs. Miniver (1942),a story of a middle class English family adjusting to the war in Europe. Mrs. Miniver won Wyler his first Academy Award for Best Director.
Wyler also directed a film which captured the mood of the nation as it turned to peace after the war. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), the story of three veterans arriving home and adjusting to civilian life, dramatized the problems of returning veterans for those who had remained on the homefront. Wyler's most personal film, taken from his experiences away from his family for three years and on the front, The Best Years of Our Lives won the Academy Award for Best Director (his second) and Academy Award for Best Picture.
Wyler's films garnered more awards for participating artists and actors than any other director in the history of Hollywood. He received twelve Oscar nominations for Best Director, winning three times, while dozens of his collaborators and actors won Oscars or were nominated. In 1965, Wyler won the Irving Thalberg Award for career achievement. Eleven years later, he received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award. In addition to his Best Picture and Best Director Oscar wins, ten of Wyler's films earned Best Picture nominations.
Wyler's style is (among auteurist critics) notoriously difficult to perceive. He did not build a stable of players like Capra, Sturges or Ford. He directed varied types of films without any trademark shots or themes, but in his choice of lighting, blocking and camera distance, and in the serious liberal tone of his work, a continuity of worldview is detectable.
On July 24, 1981, Wyler gave an interview with his daughter, producer Catherine Wyler for Directed by William Wyler, a PBS documentary about his life and career. A mere three days later, Wyler died from a heart attack. Wyler's last words on film concern a vision of directing his "next picture...Going Home". Wyler is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Wyler was briefly married to Margaret Sullavan (November 25, 1934 - March 13, 1936) and married Margaret Tallichet on October 23, 1938 until his death; they had four children, Catherine, Judith, Melanie and David.
Wyler has the distinction of having directed three Best Director Academy Award winners: Ben Hur, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Mrs. Miniver. He is tied with Frank Capra and behind John Ford, who won four Oscars in this category. There are twelve other directors who have won two Academy Awards for Best Director.