By Melissa Rose Bernardo
September 23, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT
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He never spawned any adjectives (Wisian, Wise-like, etc.). Unlike fellow filmmakers, Robert Wise didn’t have a signature style. Instead, the director — who died of heart failure Sept. 14 at age 91 — tried his hand at everything from sports stories to wartime epics, and from The Sound of Music to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

A Depression-era college dropout, Wise went from RKO gofer to Academy Award nominee (his contributions as editor on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane are considered invaluable) in eight years. While editing the 1944 B-grade chiller Curse of the Cat People, he was promoted to director. Over a span of 40 films, his camera scaled the Alps, prowled NYC streets, and navigated the Yangtze. Wise did Westerns (1948’s Blood on the Moon), noir (1949’s The Set-Up), sci-fi (1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still), biopics (1956’s Somebody Up There Likes Me, with Paul Newman as boxer Rocky Graziano), and musicals (West Side Story in 1961, Music in 1965; he won a pair of Oscars for each as director and producer). ”I don’t have a preferred genre,” Wise told EW in 2001. Among his favorites: the 1963 horror pic The Haunting and the 1958 death-row drama I Want to Live! (which earned him his first Best Director Oscar nod and its star, Susan Hayward, the Best Actress trophy).

Actors recall Wise as generous (”Not a director who wanted to leave his thumbprint on actors,” says West Side star Rita Moreno), controlled, and reassuring. ”I was awful,” says Music‘s Christopher Plummer, chuckling at his own quibbles with costumes and dialogue. ”He treated me with such politeness. He was a gentleman…. And wise, as his name suggested.”

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