Actor Gene Wilder is in a class all his own. With that velvety soft voice, angelic eyes, and mad blonde curls, Wilder has flawlessly portrayed some of our most flawed characters. Whether he’s playing a candy genius or a crazed scientist, he doesn’t miss a step, literally. Hard to believe it’s been half a century that this Milwaukee native and Actors Studio alum has been delighting us with his quirky characters in cult classic flicks like The Producers and Stir Crazy. In honor of his 80th birthday, we look back at the many reasons we’re wild about Wilder.
7. Will & Grace: One of Wilder’s last roles before retiring from acting was on the small screen. In 2002 he guest-starred on Will & Grace as Mr. Stein, Will Truman’s ruthless boss. Although he was only featured in two episodes, Wilder turned on his comedic charm and won an Emmy for it. A veteran of improv, he got the tables turned on him when, in one instance, Will (actor Eric McCormack) asks Wilder to scream out, “Say I am Stein! I am Stein!” At the end of the scene, McCormack blurts out off script, “Your name is Frankenstein!” Wilder falls to his seat laughing. Check out the blooper clip here.
6. Mel Brooks: If it wasn’t for Anne Bancroft, Wilder and Mel Brooks’ union of hysterics perhaps might have never happened. Bancroft, who was dating Brooks at the time, introduced the actor and director and the two went on to work on multiple hilarious films. Their first, The Producers, put Wilder on the map and garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
5. Richard Pryor: One of the funniest comedy pairings in film is, bar none, Wilder and Richard Pryor. The duo appeared in four films together, often in which they were framed of a crime ensuing high jinks. But because of their perfectly balanced comedy, the plot lines were beside the point. One of their funniest films together that also captured their outrageous physical comedy is Sidney Poitier’s Stir Crazy released in 1980.
Comedy gems Pryor and Wilder in 1989.
4. Blazing Saddles: “My name is Jim, but most people call me…Jim,” so says Wilder as drunken gunslinger Jim in the hit Blazing Saddles. This hysterical Western spoof, directed by Brooks (but of course) and written in part by Pryor, stars Cleavon Little as Bart, a black lawman, who tries to save the town of Rock Ridge with the help of ‘The Waco Kid,’ a/k/a Jim, played by Wilder. The film was a huge hit for Wilder, and he received three Oscar nominations. It was also ranked No. 6 on the American Film Institute’s “100 years…100 Laughs” list.
3. Gilda Radner: In 1982, and during another Poitier film, Wilder met Saturday Night Live cast member Gilda Radner on the set of Hanky Panky. Radner, who was married to SNL band leader G.E. Smith at the time, became fast friends with Wilder and ended up divorcing Smith for the funnyman. The two became a comedic power couple and appeared in two other films together, including The Woman in Red and Haunted Honeymoon. Gilda was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986 and passed away in 1989. Wilder went on to become a strong advocate for cancer and launched the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center and Gilda’s Club, a cancer support group.
2. Young Frankenstein: “Puttin’ on the Ritz” is a big band number known for its Fred Astaire elegance, so how could a crazed scientist and his latest creation, a freakish monster with no rhythm nor speaking ability, possibly perform this song concurrently and in tuxedos? Sounds ludicrous, but it was hilariously pulled off in this Brooks-directed film and a definite highlight in Wilder’s career.
1. Willy Wonka: One of the most cherished, timeless children’s films of which Wilder is most associated with is Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Although it received favorable reviews when it was released in 1971, it completely tanked at the box office. Wilder, at first, hesitated playing the title role of Wonka but decided to take it on as long as he had the freedom to shape the scene when the world first sets eyes on the recluse candymaker. He insisted that Wonka make his grand entrance with a limp and a walking cane and then quickly tumbling over and straightening up with a smile and open arms. Pure imagination!