Wilde's acting career began in 1935, when he made his debut on Broadway. In 1936, he began making small, uncredited appearances in films. By the 1940s, he had signed a contract with 20th Century Fox, and by the mid-1940s he was a major leading man. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in 1945's A Song to Remember. In the 1950s, he moved to writing, producing and directing films, but still continued his career as an actor.
Kornél Lajos Weisz was born in 1912 in Privigye, Hungary (now Prievidza, Slovakia), although his year and place of birth are usually and inaccurately given as 1915 in New York City. His Hungarian Jewish parents were Vojtech Béla Weisz (Americanized to Louis Bela Wilde) and Renée Mary Vid (Rayna Miryam). He was named for his paternal grandfather, and upon arrival in the U.S. at age 7 in 1920, his name was Americanized to Cornelius Louis Wilde.
A talented linguist and an astute mimic, he had an ear for languages which became apparent later in his acting career. Wilde attended the City College of New York as a pre-med student, completing the four-year course in three years and winning a scholarship to the Physicians and Surgeons College at Columbia University.
He qualified for the United States fencing team prior to the 1936 Summer Olympic Games, but quit the team just prior to the games in order to take a role in the theater. In preparation for an acting career, he and his new wife Marjory Heinzen (later to be known as Patricia Knight) shaved years off their ages, three for him and five for her. As a result, most publicity records and subsequent sources wrongly indicate a 1915 birth for Wilde.
After study at Theodora Irvine's Studio of the Theatre, Wilde began appearing in plays in stock and in New York. He made his Broadway debut in 1935 in Moon Over Mulberry Street. He also appeared in Love is Not So Simple, Daughters of Etreus, and Having a Wonderful Time.
He did the illustrations for Fencing, a 1936 textbook on fencing and wrote a fencing play, Touché, under the pseudonym Clark Wales in 1937. He toured with Tallulah Bankhead in a production of Anthony and Cleopatra; during the run he married his co-star Patricia Knight.
Acting jobs were sporadic over the next few years. Wilde supplemented his income with exhibition fencing matches; his wife also did modelling work. Wilde was hired as a fencing teacher by Laurence Olivier for his 1940 Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet and was given the role of Tybalt in the production. His performance in this role netted him a Hollywood film contract with Warner Bros.
Wilde had an uncredited bit part in Lady with Red Hair (1940), then got a small part in High Sierra (1941), which included a scene with Humphrey Bogart. He also had small roles in Knockout (1941) and Kisses for Breakfast (1941).
Wilde was then signed by 20th Century Fox who gave him a good role in a B picture, The Perfect Snob (1941). It was followed by a war movie, Manila Calling (1942).
He was the romantic male lead in Life Begins at Eight-Thirty (1942), supporting Monte Woolley, and supported Sonja Henie in Wintertime (1943).
In 1945, Columbia Pictures began a search for someone to play the role of Frédéric Chopin in A Song to Remember. They eventually tested Wilde, and agreed to cast him in the role after some negotiation with Fox, who agreed to loan him out to Columbia and one film a year for several years. Part of the deal involved Fox borrowing Alexander Knox from Columbia to appear in Wilson (1944). A Song to Remember was a big hit, made Wilde a star and earned him a nomination for an Academy Award as Best Actor.
Columbia also used him as Aladdin in an "Eastern" swashbuckler, A Thousand and One Nights with Evelyn Keyes.
Back at Fox he played the male lead in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), opposite Gene Tierney and Jeanne Crain, an enormous hit at the box office. Also popular was a swashbuckler Wilde made at Columbia, The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946), with Wilde cast as the son of Robin Hood. He was reunited with Crain in Fox's, Centennial Summer (1946), a popular musical.
In 1946 Wilde was voted the 18th most popular star in the US, and in 1947 – 25th. In January 1946 Wilde was suspended by Fox for refusing the male lead in Margie (1946). This suspension was soon lifted so Wilde could play the male lead in the studio's big budget version of Forever Amber (1947). Filming commenced, then was halted when the studio decide to replace the female star, Peggy Cummins. In October 1946 Wilde refused to return to work unless he was paid more; his salary was $3,000 a week, with six years to run - he wanted $150,000 a film for two films a year. The studio and Wilde came to an agreement and filming resumed. Wilde also appeared opposite Maureen O'Hara in The Homestretch (1947).
He was in a comedy at Columbia with Ginger Rogers, It Had to Be You (1947), then went back to Fox for The Walls of Jericho (film)|The Walls of Jericho]] (1948), from the same director as Leave Her to Heaven but less popular. Road House (1948), for Fox, was a highly regarded noir and a decent sized hit.
At Columbia he was in another noir, Shockproof (1949) with his then-wife Patricia Knight. They appeared together in a play at the Cape Playhouse, Western Wind.
Wilde made an independent film in Switzerland, Swiss Tour aka Four Days Leave (1949). He returned to Fox for a Western, Two Flags West (1950), then went to RKO for a swashbuckler with Maureen O'Hara, At Sword's Point (filmed 1949, not released until 1952).
He played a trapeze artist in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), for Cecil B. de Mille, an enormous hit, though Wilde was one of several stars in the movie.
At Columbia he was in a Western for producer Sam Katzman, California Conquest (1952). He went over to Warner Bros for Operation Secret (1952) then was back at Fox to do an adventure tale, Treasure of the Golden Condor (1952). He focused on adventure stories: Saadia (1953) for MGM; Star of India (1954) for United Artists. He had a decent part in the all-star executive drama Woman's World (1954) for Fox then went back to action and adventure with Passion (1954) for RKO.
In the 1950s, Wilde and his second wife, Jean Wallace, formed their own film production company, Theodora, that was named after Theodora Irvine. Their first move was the film noir The Big Combo (1955), released through Allied Artists. Wilde and Wallace played the leads. That same year, he appeared in an episode of I Love Lucy as himself.
He starred in The Scarlet Coat (1956) for MGM, then produced and starred in another for Theodora opposite Wallace, Storm Fear (1956). This time Wilde also directed; Horton Foote wrote the screenplay. Theodora announced Wilde would play Lord Byron but the film was never made. Other announced projects included Curly and Second Act Curtin. Wilde was meant to appear as Joshua in de Mille's Ten Commandments but was not in the final film.
As an actor only he appeared in Hot Blood (1956) with Jane Russell for director Nicholas Ray, and Beyond Mombasa (1956), shot in Kenya; both were released by Columbia. In 1957, he guest-starred on an episode of Father Knows Best as himself. Also in 1957, he played the role of the 13th century Persian poet Omar Khayyám in the film Omar Khayyam.
He produced, directed and starred in two films for Theodora that released through Paramount: The Devil's Hairpin (1957) a car racing drama, and Maracaibo (1958). He had the lead in Edge of Eternity (1959) for director Don Siegel.
Wilde went over to Italy to star in Constantine and the Cross (1962). In Britain, he wrote, produced, directed and starred in Lancelot and Guinevere (1963).
Wilde produced, directed, and starred in The Naked Prey (1965), in which he played a man stripped naked and chased by hunters from an African tribe affronted by the behavior of other members of his safari party. The original script for The Naked Prey was largely based on a true historical incident about a trapper named John Colter being pursued by Blackfeet Indians in Wyoming. Lower shooting costs, tax breaks, and material and logistical assistance offered by Rhodesia persuaded Wilde and the other producers to shoot the film on location in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). It is probably his most highly regarded film as director.
Wilde followed this with a war movie, Beach Red (1967). He announced another movie in Africa, Namugongo, about the White Fathers missionaries in the Kingdom of Buganda, but it was never made.
He had a supporting role in The Comic (1969), directed by Carl Reiner, then wrote, produced, and directed the science fiction film No Blade of Grass (1970).
During the early 1970s, Wilde took a break from motion pictures and theater to turn toward television. He appeared as an unethical surgeon in the 1971 Night Gallery episode "Deliveries in the Rear" and portrayed an anthropologist in the 1972 TV movie Gargoyles.
He returned to film shortly thereafter and wrote, directed, and starred in the exploitation film Sharks' Treasure, a 1975 film intended to capitalize on the "Shark Fever" popular in the mid-1970s in the wake of the success of Peter Benchley's Jaws.
He acted in The Norseman (1978) and The Fifth Musketeer (1979).
He married the actress Patricia Knight in 1937. She appeared with him in Shockproof (1949). They had a daughter, Wendy (born February 22, 1943), and divorced in 1951.
He married the actress Jean Wallace in 1951. Wallace, formerly married to actor Franchot Tone, co-starred with Wilde in several films including The Big Combo (1955), Lancelot and Guinevere, aka Sword of Lancelot (1963), and Beach Red (1967). Her two children from her marriage to Franchot Tone became Wilde's stepsons. They also had a son together, Cornel Wallace Wilde Jr. (born December 19, 1967). They divorced in 1981.
Wilde died of leukemia three days after his 77th birthday. He was survived by his daughter and son; two stepsons, Pascal Franchot Tone and Thomas Jefferson Tone; and three grandchildren. Wilde is interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, Los Angeles.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Cornel Wilde has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1635 Vine Street.General Electric Theater (1955) (episode "The Blond Dog")
Storm Fear (1955)
The Devil's Hairpin (1957)
Lancelot and Guinevere (1963)
The Naked Prey (1965)
Beach Red (1967)
No Blade of Grass (1970)
Sharks' Treasure (1975)
The Devil's Hairpin (1957)
Lancelot and Guinevere (1963) (as Jefferson Pascal)
Beach Red (1967) (as Jefferson Pascal)
No Blade of Grass (1970) (as Jefferson Pascal)
Sharks' Treasure (1975)