October 13, 1912– Cornel Wilde, not to be confused with gay author Oscar Wilde or racial equity activist Cornel West, darkly handsome, with a gorgeous smile, a beautiful voice, 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, & 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 Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet, which co-starred Olivier & his new bride Vivien Leigh. Wilde was 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 break out year was 1945. He played composer Frédéric Chopin in A Song To Remember, a totally camp film with Merle Oberon as writer George Sand, which inexplicitly brought him a Best Actor Oscar 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 & her 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, & the ultimate B-movie Gun Crazy (1950).
For crazy camp cinema expereince, 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 an Academy Award for Best Picture. In it, Wilde has one of the all-time greatest lines of demented dialogue when he faces Charlton Heston & says in an awful French accent: “You are CIRCUS!” I used to use this line on guys I was hot for in the 1970s.
Wilde guest starred in one of the funniest I Love Lucy Hollywood episodes where Lucy dresses as a bellboy to sneak into the hunky actor’s hotel room & hilarity ensues.
By this time, the roles offered to Wilde had a certain unsettling sameness, & 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 & directed, playing man being pursued by African tribesmen. Wilde wears only a loin cloth for most of the 96 minute film, still looking buff & sexy.
In 1988, Wilde played a murder victim on 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 catches his killer at the end of the episode & 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 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 & my experience. It was my goal to accomplish, in my life, something of value & to do it with self-respect & integrity.”