Wyler was born Wilhelm Weiller to a Jewish family in Mulhouse, Alsace (part of the then-German Empire). His Swiss father, Leopold, started as a traveling salesman which he later turned into a thriving haberdashery business. His mother, Melanie (died February 13, 1955, Los Angeles, California, aged 77), was German, and a cousin of Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures. During Wyler's childhood, he attended a number of schools and developed a reputation as "something of a hellraiser", being expelled more than once for misbehavior. His mother often took him and his older brother Robert to concerts, opera, and the theatre, as well as the early cinema. Sometimes at home his family and their friends would stage amateur theatricals for personal enjoyment.
After realizing that Willi was not interested in the family business, and having suffered through a terrible year financially after World War I, his mother contacted her distant cousin about opportunities for him. Laemmle was in the habit of coming to Europe each year and finding promising young men who would work in America. In 1921, Wyler, traveling as a Swiss citizen (his father's status automatically conferred Swiss citizenship to his sons), found himself and a young Czech man, Paul Kohner (later the independent agent), aboard the same ship en route to New York. Their enjoyment of the first class trip was short-lived as they found they had to pay back the cost of the passage out of their $25 weekly income as messengers to Universal Pictures in New York. After working in New York for several years, and even serving in the New York National Guard for a year, Wyler decided he wanted to go to Hollywood and be a director.
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