Otto Preminger Biography

Director (1905–1986)
Otto Preminger helped establish film noir with his 1944 movie Laura. He later challenged oppressive film regulations while working against the Hollywood "blacklist."


Otto Preminger was born on December 5, 1905, in Vienna, Austria, where he initially thought he would become a lawyer. However, early acting roles led him in another direction, and he began directing plays, eventually moving to the United States. in 1935 to work on Broadway. In 1944, he directed the Hollywood thriller Laura, which helped establish the film noir genre, and he went on to make films that challenged censorship restrictions in place at the time. He died on April 23, 1986, in New York City.

Early Life

Otto Preminger was born on December 5, 1905, in Vienna, Austria. His father was a prosecutor and was once attorney general of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Preminger would later set out to follow in his footsteps. But while still a teenager, Preminger embraced his burgeoning love of acting and began appearing in plays around Vienna.

When Preminger was 17, his life took a fateful turn when leading theater director Max Reinhardt assigned him a primary role in a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Impressed with Preminger's talent, Reinhardt would turn over management of one of his theaters to Preminger just two years later. Preminger had in the meantime obtained his law degree (as did his brother, who would one day become a Hollywood agent), but a law practice was never to be.

Preminger soon left the stage for the wings, directing several plays that gained him critical and popular attention, and by his late 20s, he was one of the most renowned theater producer-directors in all of Europe. He made his first foray into film in 1931, directing Die Grosse Liebe, though theater would remain his focus for the years to come.

The Move to the United States

In the mid-1930s, at the invitation of a producer, Preminger headed overseas to direct theater productions on Broadway. Also a consideration for Preminger in the move was the fact that, as a Jew, he was becoming acutely aware of the Nazi menace spreading through his homeland. Preminger's first Broadway play was Libel (staged in 1936), which did relatively well, but he went on to helm several hits on the Great White Way, including A Midsummer Night's Dream, Margin for Error and Moon Is Blue.

During this same period, Preminger first forged a relationship with Twentieth Century Fox and directed several low-level films before he was fired and returned to his Broadway career. However, Preminger would return to Hollywood in 1942, launching his film acting career, during which, ironically, he portrayed a Nazi in each of his next three roles: The Pied Piper (1942), Margin for Error (1943), They Got Me Covered (1943). A decade later he appeared in Stalag 17 (1953), also playing a Nazi.

 Taking on Hollywood

But perhaps Preminger's most-lasting achievement came when he directed the dark thriller Laura (1944), which set the tone for the looming onrush of film noir. It also nabbed him his first Oscar nomination for Best Director and led to a string of thrillers, such as Black Angel (1945) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). 

But while Preminger was officially on the map as a world-class filmmaker, his reputation didn’t end there. He was also viewed as something of tyrant, with a huge ego on set that earned him the nickname Otto the Ogre and left in his wake a long string of angry actors. He also continued to feud with Twentieth Century Fox executive Darryl Zanuck, who had previously fired Preminger from the studio. 

Never one to back down, however, Preminger leveraged his success to make the types of films he wanted to make and to strike back against the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) suffocating Production Code. Among his notable films from this period are The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), which starred Frank Sinatra as a heroin addict, and the 1959 courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder, which received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Preminger also fired shots off at the Hollywood blacklist, notably hiring blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to write his film Exodus (1960).

 Later Years

Following the box-office success of Exodus, Preminger directed the 1962 political drama Advise & Consent, which was also favorably received. For his next film, The Cardinal (1963), he was honored with his second Academy Award nomination for Best Director. He followed with the epic World War II picture In Harm's Way in 1965. 

After briefly appearing as the villain Mr. Freeze in the 1966 season of the Batman television series, Preminger returned to the director's chair, however, the majority of his films from this period are generally considered to be of a lesser quality than his earlier output.

Among Preminger's later films are the 1968 comedy Skidoo and the 1975 thriller Rosebud, both of which were box-office and critical duds. On the heels of these underperforming releases came The Human Factor (1979), an adaptation of Graham Greene's novel of the same name. It would be the last film Preminger would direct.

In Preminger's later years, he began to suffer from Alzheimer's disease and also developed cancer, to which he eventually succumbed on April 23, 1986. 

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