Fox was born Wilhelm Fuchs to Jewish parents in Tolcsva, Hungary, then part of Austria-Hungary. He came to America at the age of 9 months, where his name was anglicized to William Fox. He had many jobs starting at the age of 8. In 1900 he started his own company which he sold in 1904 to purchase his first nickelodeon. In 1915, he started Fox Film Corporation.
In 1925-26, Fox purchased the rights to the work of Freeman Harrison Owens, the U.S. rights to the Tri-Ergon system invented by three German inventors, and the work of Theodore Case to create the Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, released in 1927. Sound-on-film systems such as Movietone and RCA Photophone soon became the standard, and the competing sound-on-disc technologies, such as Warner Bros's Vitaphone, fell into disuse.
In 1927, Marcus Loew, head of rival studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer died, and control of MGM passed to his longtime associate, Nicholas Schenck. Fox saw an opportunity to expand his empire, and in 1929, with Schenck's assent, bought the Loew family's holdings in MGM. However, MGM studio bosses Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg were outraged. Despite their high posts in the MGM, they were not shareholders. Mayer in particular used his political connections to persuade the Justice Department to sue Fox for violating federal antitrust law. During this time, in the summer of 1929, Fox was badly hurt in an automobile accident. By the time he recovered, the stock market crash in the fall of 1929 had virtually wiped out his financial holdings, ending any chance of the Loews-Fox merger going through even if the Justice Department had given its blessing.
Fox lost control of the Fox Film Corporation in 1930 during a hostile takeover. A combination of the 1929 Wall Street stock market crash, Fox's injury in a car accident in the summer of 1929, and government anti-trust action forced him into a protracted seven-year struggle to fight off bankruptcy. At his bankruptcy hearing in 1936, Fox attempted to bribe judge John Warren Davis and commit perjury. He was sentenced to six months in prison. After serving his time, Fox retired from the film business. Fox died in 1952 at the age of 73. No Hollywood producers came to his funeral.
In 1935, Fox Film Corporation, under new president Sidney Kent, merged with the upstart Twentieth Century Pictures to form 20th Century-Fox which was itself merged into News Corporation in 1985. News Corporation, 20th Century Fox's corporate parent continues to make movies and started the FOX Network.