He directed more than 35 feature films in a five-decade career after leaving the theatre. He first gained attention for film noir mysteries such as Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), while in the 1950s and 1960s, he directed a number of high-profile adaptations of popular novels and stage works. Several of these later films pushed the boundaries of censorship by dealing with topics which were then taboo in Hollywood, such as drug addiction (The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955), rape (Anatomy of a Murder, 1959) and homosexuality (Advise & Consent, 1962). He was twice nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director. He also had a few acting roles.
Preminger was born in 1905 in Wiznitz, Bukovina, Austro-Hungarian Empire (present-day Vyzhnytsia, Ukraine), into a Jewish family. His parents were Josefa (née Fraenkel) and Markus Preminger. The couple provided a stable home life for Preminger and his younger brother Ingwald, known as "Ingo", later the producer of the original film version of M*A*S*H (1970).
After the assassination in 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which led to the Great War, Russia entered the war on the Serbian side. Like other refugees in flight, Markus Preminger saw Austria as a safe haven for his family. He secured a position as public prosecutor in Graz, capital of Styria. When the Preminger family relocated, Otto was nearly nine, and was enrolled in a school where instruction in Catholic dogma was mandatory and Jewish history and religion had no place on the syllabus. Ingo, not yet four, remained at home.
After a year in Graz, the decisive public prosecutor was summoned to Vienna, where he was offered an eminent position, roughly equivalent to that of the United States Attorney General. Markus was told that the position would be his only if he converted to Catholicism, which he refused to do. The next year, he relocated his family to Vienna, where Otto later claimed to have been born.
Preminger's first theatrical ambition was to become an actor. In his early teens, he was able to recite from memory many of the great monologues from the international classic repertory, and, never shy, he demanded an audience. Preminger's most successful performance in the National Library rotunda was Mark Antony's funeral oration from Julius Caesar. As he read, watched, and after a fashion began to produce plays, he began to miss more and more classes in school.