Robert Wise, 91, an eclectic and acclaimed film director often identified with the two grand-scale musicals that won him Academy Awards, "West Side Story" (1961) and "The Sound of Music" (1965), died Sept. 14 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He had a heart ailment.
Mr. Wise won early applause as a film editor on Orson Welles's masterpiece "Citizen Kane" (1941) and, during the next several decades, distinguished himself directing films that skipped across genres with consistent credibility. He dismissed as "esoteric" those critics who found him lacking a single style and wanted to tag him like Alfred Hitchcock as the king of suspense or John Ford as the master of westerns.
Mr. Wise's movies included science-fiction tinglers ("The Day the Earth Stood Still," 1951); a boardroom intrigue ("Executive Suite," 1954); war stories ("Run Silent, Run Deep," 1958); fight dramas ("Somebody Up There Likes Me," 1956); an indictment of capital punishment ("I Want to Live!," 1958); a crime story with a racial tinge ("Odds Against Tomorrow," 1959); and a ghost tale ("The Haunting," 1963).
Among his finest features was the boxing story "The Set-Up" (1949) with Robert Ryan as a fought-out pugilist who refuses to take a dive. To prepare for "The Set-Up," Mr. Wise visited a boxing arena in Long Beach, Calif., wanting to observe how boxers acted in the dressing room after they lost.
The picture was astonishing -- shot in 72 minutes of real time and showcasing brutal fight sequences that later influenced Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull." Mr. Wise won the international critics' award for best director at the Cannes Film Festival.
By the early 1960s, he was at the peak of his profession. "West Side Story," which he produced, won the Oscar for best picture, and he shared the award for best director with Jerome Robbins.
In the opening scene, he flew in a helicopter and showed a bird's-eye view of New York City, cutting from neighborhood to neighborhood. That was markedly different from previous openings with the static skyline scene and, to Mr. Wise, solved the problem of making the musical of singing gang members believable.
He told an interviewer in 1998 that "because it was kind of an abstract, I think it put the audience in the frame of mind to accept the kids dancing in the street just a few minutes later, a few beats later after we get out of the playground."
Directing "The Sound of Music," one of the highest-grossing films in history, was not a sure bet. The Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II musical about a family of plucky Austrian singers amid the Nazis' rise had a long Broadway run but received scathing reviews. New York theater critic Walter Kerr wrote that the show was "not only too sweet for words, but almost too sweet for music."
Mr. Wise reshaped some of the play with screenwriter Ernest Lehman and liberated the staginess with the soaring opening shot of the Austrian Alps. He also directed such songs as "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" mostly in shadow, trying "in every way I could not to make it too onerous."
He won the Oscar for directing "The Sound of Music," which also won for best picture, and insisted on a share of the profits.
Robert Earl Wise, a grocer's son, was born Sept. 10, 1914, in Winchester, Ind. He spent most of his spare time in bijous -- he recalled "The Three Musketeers" (1921) with Douglas Fairbanks as great fun -- and writing sports articles for his high school newspaper.
He intended to study journalism at Franklin College in Indiana but left during the Depression. An older brother working in Hollywood at RKO's accounting department found him work as a studio messenger in 1933. He soon became a $25-a-week film porter, taking prints between the projection and cutting rooms. Eager to advance, he was tutored by master film editor William Hamilton.
Mr. Wise impressed many with an ambition tempered by skill. He won promotion to editor in 1939 and shaped films of great diversity: the Cary Grant-Irene Dunne comedy "My Favorite Wife" (1940), the fantasy-drama "The Devil and Daniel Webster" (1941) and "Citizen Kane."
The Welles film earned Mr. Wise an Oscar nomination as editor, but he insisted that it was easy to assemble because of Gregg Toland's ingenious camera work: "You would see those extraordinary dailies every day, the marvelous photography and angles and great scenes with actors that were new to the screen, and know it was quite special."
He credited his blossoming friendship with Welles to the fact that the director, at 26, was only six months his senior. Their relationship soured when he ignored Welles's 37-page set of instructions and followed a studio-demanded reworking of their next project, "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942). Welles was out of the country and later called the resulting film a "mutilation."
Conscious of what he called "the realities of what the studio was demanding," Mr. Wise noted that the film's length and lurid themes of insanity and incest were off-putting to a wartime audience. A sneak preview in Pomona, Calif., Mr. Wise once said, "was an absolute disaster. The audience walked out in droves. . . . The film was also awfully long for those days, more than two hours."
Mr. Wise's directing career began when another director overran his budget on "The Curse of the Cat People" (1944). Mr. Wise finished the film in his allotted 10 days, and producer Val Lewton rewarded him with another project, "The Body Snatcher" (1945), which he turned into a taut thriller with Boris Karloff.
He went on to direct other expert dramas for RKO in the late 1940s, including the noir western "Blood on the Moon" (1948) with Robert Mitchum and "The Set-Up." When RKO's mercurial owner, Howard Hughes, did not renew his contract, Mr. Wise worked for a series of other studios and eventually on his own.
As a director, he surrounded himself with top actors, including William Holden, Paul Newman, Robert Ryan, Burt Lancaster, Susan Hayward and Julie Harris.
He took classes in performance early in his career to better appreciate the craft, and he had faith in the intuition of his actors. Directing Steve McQueen on the gunboat action film "The Sand Pebbles" (1966), he later told the Los Angeles Times: "I never worked with an actor who knew so well what worked for him. We would be rehearsing a scene and Steve would say, 'I think I can get that point across with a reaction.' And very often he was right."
Mr. Wise had a critical and popular failure with "Star!" (1968), his biopic about British stage star Gertrude Lawrence and featuring Julie Andrews. He considered this his greatest disappointment, adding that "the public saw Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music,' all sweet and nice, and didn't want to see her as a gal who slept around and led a kind of hard-hitting life."
He continued making films, including "The Andromeda Strain" (1971), based on the Michael Crichton novel about a deadly virus; "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979); "Rooftops" (1989), about urban break-dancers; and "A Storm in Summer" (2000), a television film with Peter Falk playing a prejudiced Jewish deli owner.
Mr. Wise was a former president of the Directors Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He received the Directors Guild's D.W. Griffith Award for career achievement in 1988 and the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award in 1998.
His first wife, Patricia Doyle Wise, died in 1975.
Survivors include his second wife, Millicent Franklin Wise; a son from his first marriage; a stepdaughter; and a granddaughter.