Frederic received a Bachelor of Arts from Williams College in 1951, and a Bachelor of Laws from Yale Law School in 1954. It is known that he also attended Harvard University.
Frederick worked for a short time as an assistant to the attorney general of Massachusetts, then lived in Paris for two years during 1956 - 1958. On his return to the United States he taught at Boston University's Institute of Law and Medicine, often taking his students to visit law courts and prisons.
Increasingly bored with the abstractions of the law, Wiseman bought the film rights to "The Cool World" (1963), a novel about Harlem delinquents, and produced the film, which was directed by Shirley Clarke. After taking his law students to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater, a prison for the criminally insane, to show them the conditions there, Wiseman decided to make his own film, "Titicut Follies", which is a brutally realistic, extended gaze at the oppressive conditions at Bridgewater, offered without any commentary.
"Titicut Follies" was widely celebrated by critics and academics, but was attacked in courts by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 1968 Judge Harry Kalus ruled in Commonwealth vs Wiseman that Wiseman had breached an oral contract with the state and had invaded the privacy of one of the Bridgewater inmates. Kalus ordered the film banned in Massachusetts. On appeal, the Massachusetts Supreme Court softened the decision and permitted showings of the film to special audiences; in 1991 the injunction was lifted completely.
In "Titicut Follies" and the documentaries that followed, Wiseman used a small, unobtrusive crew, including a cameraman using lightweight equipment and no additional lights. Wiseman recorded sound, while an assistant supplied fresh film and tape. His straightforward films contain no on-camera interviews or commentary by the filmmaker. All scenes are unstaged to achieve what Wiseman called "a natural history of the way we live." Wiseman's method gave the films the feel and texture of reality, but they were deftly and slowly edited in a way that encouraged the viewer to make connections, to speculate about social themes, and to reflect about the subject.
Wiseman called his films "reality fictions", acknowledging that he was employing his own perspective. Wiseman's wry, detached tone, accompanied by the patient's probing curiosity of his films, resulted in a humanistic focus on the quality of our everyday lives.
After "Titicut Follies", Wiseman produced "High School" in 1968, filmed at the middle-class Northeast High School in Philadelphia, a widely admired exposure of the oppressiveness and boredom imposed on adolescents and their apathetic response. After the angry tone of "Titicut Follies" and "High School", Wiseman turned increasingly to a more complex interest in cultural issues, in which problems and victims are seldom clear-cut. Wiseman's subsequent documentaries were produced under contracts with New York City Public Television station WNET and were often shown on TV's Public Broadcasting System, but rarely in movie theaters.
Wiseman's "Law and Order" (1969) follows police procedures in Kansas City. "Hospital" (1970) explores the routines of an urban hospital. "Basic Training" (1971) shows a group of young draftees being prepared for infantry service in Vietnam. "Essene" (1972) focuses on a group of Benedictine monks. "Juvenile Court" (1973) explores a juvenile justice system in Memphis, presenting the paradoxes of attempting to combine justice and therapy. "Primate" (1974), one of Wiseman's most controversial films, shows the destructive results of human curiosity on a colony of captive apes at the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta. The PBS broadcast of the film brought viewer complaints and a bomb threat.
Many consider Wiseman's "Welfare" (1975) to be his most effective work; it shows the frustrating interaction of a New York City welfare center and its clients. "Meat" (1975) is a dark comedy about a meat-packing plant in Colorado, where bleating animals are reduced to stacks of neat plastic packages for supermarkets.
Wiseman ventured outside the United States in "Canal Zone" (1977), which shows how American residents of the Panama Canal Zone try to keep their American cultural routines intact. In "Sinai Field Mission" (1978) Wiseman explored American soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Desert. In "Manoeuvre" (1979) Wiseman watched a National Guard unit participating in war games in Germany, rehearsing for a war with the Soviet Union. "Model" (1980) extended Wiseman's analysis of American culture by looking at how images are constructed in the advertising business. In "The Store" (1983) Wiseman moved from modeling to merchandising, choosing the Neiman-Marcus store in Dallas as his setting.
Wiseman released one fiction film, "Seraphita's Diary" in 1982, which explores the theme of self-awareness. He went to Belmont Race Track in New York to film "Racetrack" in 1985, then in 1987 released a pair of films on people with disabilities, "Blind and Deaf." Also in 1987 he released "Missile." In 1989 his "Near Death" chronicled the intensive care unit of Boston's Beth Israel Hospital. In 1990 he returned to New York City to shoot "Central Park." In 1993 his look at Miami's Metrozoo, "Zoo," was widely praised. In 1994 he returned to an earlier subject with "High School II", about Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem, New York. In 1995 he chronicled the American Ballet Theatre in "Ballet." In 1996 Wiseman released "La Comedie-Francaise Ou L'Amour Joue", a tribute to a three-century-old Paris theater. In spring 2012, Wiseman took actively part in the three-month exposition of Whitney Biennial.
Wiseman's films are, in his view, an elaboration of a personal experience and not an ideologically objective portrait of his subjects. In many interviews, Wiseman has emphasized that his films are not and cannot be unbiased. In spite of the inescapable bias that is introduced in the process of "making a movie", he still feels he has certain ethical obligations regarding how he portrays the events in his films.
"You have to edit the material. That assumes that some kind of a mind is operating in relation to the material. Not all minds are the same. Every aspect of filmmaking requires choice. The selection of the subject, the shooting, editing and length are all aspects of choice."
"My goal is to make as many films as possible about different aspects of American life."
Wiseman openly admits to manipulating his source material to create dramatic structure.
On May 29, 1955 Frederick married Zipporah Batshaw, with whom he has two sons: David B. and Eric T. Wiseman.