October 13, 1912– Cornel Wilde, not to be confused with gay author Oscar Wilde or racial equity activist Cornel West; he was a darkly handsome actor with a gorgeous smile, a beautiful voice, and a remarkable physique, which he took great pride in. The modestly talented Wilde was an Olympic fencer when he was first discovered.
Born Kornel Lajos Weisz in Hungary to Jewish parents who fled to the USA ahead of the Nazis, Wilde was a cunning linguist proficient in Hungarian, French, German, Italian, and Russian. He spent much of his formative years in Europe, where he found his passion for fencing.
In 1940, Laurence Oliver hired Wilde as a fencing teacher for his Broadway production of William Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet, which co-starred Olivier and his new bride Vivien Leigh. Wilde was also cast as Tybalt in this production, which led to a Hollywood contract. He soon was cast in small roles in good films like High Sierra (1941) with Humphrey Bogart.
Wilde’s big break out year was 1945. He played composer Frédéric Chopin in A Song To Remember, a totally camp film with mysterious beauty Merle Oberon as writer George Sand, which inexplicitly brought him a Best Actor Academy Award nomination. Also that year was the great film noir Leave Her To Heaven starring gorgeous Gene Tierney. This twisted film about a monstrous woman so possessive of her husband that she kills his crippled brother and her own unborn child, is one of the great melodramas of all time. Wilde gives a restrained performance.
Some of his fun classic films: the romance Forever Amber (1947), the juicy noir Road House (1948) with Ida Lupino, and the ultimate B-movie Gun Crazy (1950).
For crazy camp cinema experience, you must check him out as the crippled trapeze artist in Cecil B. DeMille‘s The Greatest Show On Earth (1952), the worst film to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture. In it, Wilde has one of the all-time greatest lines of demented dialogue as he faces Charlton Heston (in tights!) and says in an awful French accent: “You are CIRCUS!” I used to use this line on guys that I was hot for in the 1970s.
Wilde guest starred on one of the funniest I Love Lucy Hollywood episodes, the one where Lucy dresses as a bellboy to sneak into the hunky actor’s hotel room and hilarity ensues.
By this time, the roles offered to Wilde had a certain unsettling sameness, and he abandoned what was, at the time, a $150,000 a film career to become a writer-producer-director.
Thankfully for film history buffs like me, Wilde appears shirtless in most of his films. In 1966, at 54 years old, Wilde starred in The Naked Prey which he also produced and directed, playing a man being pursued by African tribesmen. Wilde wears only a loin cloth for most of the 96 minute film, still looking buff and very sexy.
In 1988, Wilde played a murder victim on a Murder She Wrote episode, appearing naked in a hot tub when he was 75 years old (luckily there are no close-up shots). Don’t worry, Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher catches his killer at the end of the episode and justice gets served.
Wilde took his final curtain call in 1989, taken by leukemia at 77 years old. During his long and varied career, spanning the years 1940 to 1987, the aristocratic actor/writer/director made more than 50 films. He was one of the sexiest leading men of his era.
“I realized long ago that I could not depend on luck to bring me success. I worked hard, extra hard to improve my chance by increasing my abilities and my experience. It was my goal to accomplish, in my life, something of value and to do it with self-respect and integrity.”