Interview with Maggie Wellman: "My favorite story was father hiring an unknown actor named Gary Cooper" 🇺🇸
In this interview Maggie Wellman, daughter of the iconic movie director William A. Wellman and author of the book Falling into the Silence, shares her memories growing up in Hollywood, as well as how her father influenced film-making for generations to come.
Vintoz.com: With “Wings” your father won the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929 and later on in 1938 he was awarded an Academy Award for ‘Best Original Story’ (A Star Is Born). What were your dad’s recollections of these impressive achievements?
Maggie Wellman: My father was so proud of Wings and his successful fight to make the movie an authentic representation of WW1. After battling with Paramount executives, he was subsequently left off the invite list for the Academy Awards in 1927, where Wings won the first Best Picture Award.
Vintoz.com: Is it fair to say that your father’s favorite movies to shoot were aviation-related movies (Wings, Lafayette Escadrille, Men with Wings, Island in the Sky, Battleground)? I bet your father would have liked to do Only Angels have Wings or The Dawn Patrol. Was there perhaps a friendly rivalry with Howard Hawks, another former aviator, to make certain pictures?
Maggie Wellman: My father and Howard Hawks were good friends. In Hollywood, they rode motorcycles together in a group called the Moraga Spit and Polish Club. Other members were Clark Gable, Robert Taylor with wife Barbara Stanwyck, and Van Johnson, to name a few. My mother (all of 5’ 2”) rode her own Harley Davidson with the group. I have always searched for a picture of her and her Harley, but have never found one to date.
Vintoz.com: Your father’s nickname was Wild Bill, which according to IMDB was given to him due to “his larger-than-life personality and lifestyle’. How did you experience your father? Was there a ‘public personality’ and a ‘private personality’ William Wellman? How would you describe him?
Maggie Wellman: Wild Bill was a nickname father got during World War 1, when he was a pilot with the Lafayette Flying Corp in France. The nickname stuck with him when his career turned to Hollywood. He never backed away from a fight with studio executives who may have been trying to steer him from an artistic choice he was determined to make. I was around 5 years old when father retired (quit is more like it) from making movies, so I only knew the private side of my father. I’ve tried to incorporate my experiences with him growing up in my short stories.
Vintoz.com: Your dad worked with many celebrities, such as John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Jean Harlow (just to name a few). Did he share any interesting anecdotes from these experiences?
Maggie Wellman: My favorite story was father hiring an unknown actor named Gary Cooper for a role in Wings. The character Cooper plays only has one scene, and after filming he went to my father and asked to reshoot the scene because he had picked at his nose in the middle of it. Father said “no” to the reshoot, telling Cooper “You keep right on picking your nose and you’ll pick it into a fortune.”
Vintoz.com: How did your father’s experience serving in World War I impact his later work and his perspective on life?
Maggie Wellman: My father was shot down in WW1, breaking his back and sustaining head injuries that resulted in much physical pain later in life. On top of it, he suffered greatly from arthritis. I think he carried the weight of his war experiences every day of his life, both in the physical pain and his experience with the loss of so many of his war buddies that had died during combat. As a child, I remember father had a small, framed picture of a grave on his dressing room shelf where he would pass by and see it every day. The gravestone was marked with the name Ernie Pyle, the famous war correspondent and lead character in the Story of G.I. Joe. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how Father mourned for his wartime buddy his entire life.
Vintoz.com: Despite all the remarkable achievements in his extremely successful career which spanned so many sectors (sales, professional athlete, servicemen, aviator, actor and of course director) were there things your father had still wished to achieve, or did he regard his life and career achievements as ‘complete’?
Maggie Wellman: I think father would have liked to continue making films, but the studio system had changed, and he could no longer make the films as he envisioned his way, so he quit. I believe he was proud of his body of work, but he shied away from attention, and always played down his achievements. He spent the last few years of his life writing an autobiography called Short Time For Insanity.
Vintoz.com: What was it like growing up in Hollywood during the 50s, being the daughter of a famous director?
Maggie Wellman: The 50’s are kind of hazy to me. I was a young child. Growing up I had school buddies with famous mothers and fathers: James Stewart’s daughters Kelly and Judy, Robert Mitchum’s daughter Petrine, Jack Palance’s daughter Brooke, so the Hollywood landscape was simply home to me. When I went out on my own and began an acting career, my father’s reputation rode with me and gave me entrance into interviews based on his notoriety. Filmmakers loved the Wellman legend…the director who took on the studio heads and insisted on making films his way, and I held a piece of that fame as his daughter.
Vintoz.com: You have recently released the book “Falling Into The Silence”, in which you have captured a collection of short stories based on childhood memories. Please tell you a bit about the book, as well as what motivated you to write it.
Maggie Wellman: I have always enjoyed storytelling. I can remember listening to my father’s thrilling tales and wondering what was real, and what was the artistic freedom he took in taking a good story and tweaking it into a great story. These memories encouraged me to write my own stories that tell tales of growing up in a Hollywood family. Many of the stories are recognizable as memoir, some are simply fiction with the heart of truth.
Vintoz.com: In the 1970s and 1980s you also pursued a career in acting. How has your father’s tremendous success influenced this?
Maggie Wellman: Because of my father, doors were open to me, and I had enough talent to enjoy a degree of success. But to be truthful, I never enjoyed acting or the limelight it brought, so I moved away from Hollywood and found my joy raising a family in a little town in California named Ojai.