Self graduated from the University of Chicago in 1943 before traveling to Los Angeles to be an actor. His first film role was Private Gawky Henderson in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) directed by William Wellman. Self also appeared in four films directed by Howard Hawks, including Red River (1948) and the Science Fiction cult classic, The Thing from Another World (1951). Between 1945 and 1952, he appeared in over thirty films.
In 1952, Self left acting to launch a lifelong career in television production. His first producing credit was Assistant to the Producer on the series China Smith starring Dan Duryea. From 1952 until 1956, Self was acting-producer (billed as Associate Producer) and then Producer of the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars. During this period, he produced two-hundred-eight half-hour episodes at fifty-two episodes per year. Many notable actors appeared as guest stars including Anthony Quinn, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price, Walter Brennan, Ronald Reagan, Rod Steiger, Charles Bronson, and James Dean.
Self moved on to produce The Frank Sinatra Show in 1957. Later that year, he accepted the post of Program Executive for CBS Television Network where his assignment was to develop new television series. The first pilot he produced was Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone.
Self was hired in 1959 by 20th Century Fox where he remained for fifteen years. During this period, Self piloted Fox television from near-extinction to become one of the top suppliers of television programming in the business. In 1966, Fox had more television hours on the air than any other supplier. Significant among Fox series were Peyton Place (1964–1969), the first Prime Time soap-opera; Batman (1966–1968), the first series based on a comic book to air in Prime Time; Julia (1968–1971), the first weekly television series to star an African American woman; and the enduring classic M*A*S*H (1972–1983). Other notable Fox series of the time included Daniel Boone (1964–1969), Twelve O'Clock High (1964–1967), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964–1968), Lost in Space (1965–1968), The Green Hornet (1966–1967), The Ghost & Mrs. Muir (1968–1970), Land of the Giants (1968–1970), and Room 222 (1969–1972).
Self's talents were rewarded by the studio as he was promoted progressively from his original position of Executive Producer/Twentieth Century Fox Television (1962) to Vice-President/Twentieth Century Fox Television (1964) to President/Twentieth Century Fox Television (1968), and finally to Vice-President/Twentieth Century Fox Corporation.
Self left Fox in 1975 to partner with Mike Frankovich in the development and production of television and feature films. Although the partnership lasted just a little over a year, Frankovich/Self produced two feature films. These were The Shootist (1976), John Wayne's last film, and From Noon Till Three (1976) starring Charles Bronson.
Self returned to CBS in 1977 as Vice-President/Head of the West Coast. A year later, he took on a new challenge when he accepted the position of Vice President in Charge of Television Movies and Mini-Series, also for CBS. Before leaving this job in 1982, he supervised production of about fifty films and three or four mini-series per year. These included The Corn is Green (1979) starring Katharine Hepburn; All Quiet on the Western Front (1979) starring Ernest Borgnine and Richard Thomas; Guyana Tragedy (1980) starring Powers Boothe; Playing For Time (1980) starring Vanessa Redgrave; The Bunker (1981) starring Anthony Hopkins; Bill (1981) starring Mickey Rooney and Dennis Quaid; The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1982) starring Anthony Hopkins; and The Blue and the Gray (1982), an American Civil War mini-series which gained four prime-time Emmy nominations.
Self returned to the feature film in 1982 when he was made President of CBS Theatrical Film Production. He served in this capacity for three years, supervising the making of ten movies including Target (1985) directed by Arthur Penn and starring Gene Hackman and Matt Dillon; Eleni (1985) directed by Peter Yates and starring Kate Nelligan and John Malkovich; Better Off Dead (1985) with John Cusack; and Turtle Diary (1985) starring Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley.
In 1985, when CBS decided to leave the feature film business, Self established the independent William Self Productions to develop both television and feature films. In partnership with Norman Rosemont, Self produced The Tenth Man (1988) for the Hallmark Hall of Fame. It starred Anthony Hopkins, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Derek Jacobi. He also partnered with Glenn Close in producing three television movies for Hallmark: Sarah, Plain and Tall (1991), Skylark (1993), and Sarah, Plain and Tall: Winter's End (1999), all starring Glenn Close and Christopher Walken. Sarah, Plain and Tall received the highest rating of any Hallmark Hall of Fame to that date.
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