Gene Wilder biography
Gene Wilder began his career in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, but he became famous as a favorite of writer/director Mel Brooks. His roles in Young Frankenstein and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory made him eternally famous. In his later years, Wilder became a serious novelist, writing a memoir and several fiction novels.
Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silverman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on June 11, 1933, to a Jewish family. His father, William, had emigrated from Russia. His mother, Jeanne, was often ill from complications from rheumatic heart disease, and a doctor warned the 8-year-old Jerome, "don't ever argue with your mother... you might kill her. Try to make her laugh." These circumstances began Wilder's lifelong calling to acting, as he made his mother laugh by putting on different accents. After a brief stint in a California military academy, Wilder moved back to Milwaukee and became involved with the local theater scene, making his stage debut as Balthasar in a production of Romeo and Juliet.
After graduating from high school, Wilder studied Communication and Theatre Arts at the University of Iowa, following that with a year studying theater and fencing at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, United Kingdom. He returned to the United States to study the Stanislavski method of acting, but was promptly drafted into the U.S. Army for two years, during which time he worked as a medic in Pennsylvania. Next, Wilder moved to New York City, where he took a variety of odd jobs, including a position as a fencing teacher, to support himself while he studied acting.
At age 26, Wilder decided that he "couldn't quite see a marquee reading 'Jerry Silverman as Macbeth,'" and took the stage name Gene Wilder. He took his new first name from a character in a Thomas Wolfe novel, and his last from the playwright Thornton Wilder. He started appearing with some regularity in off-Broadway and Broadway shows. In a 1963 production of Mother Courage and Her Children, he met Anne Bancroft, who introduced him to her boyfriend, Mel Brooks. Wilder and Brooks became fast friends, and Brooks decided he wanted to cast Wilder in a production of the screenplay he was writing, The Producers.
Wilder made his film debut with a minor role in 1967's Bonnie and Clyde. He took on his first major role in The Producers, playing Leo Bloom against Zero Mostel's Max Bialystock. The film was a box office flop and received mixed reviews, but Wilder earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He quickly became an in-demand commodity in Hollywood, taking parts in several comedies (and famously playing an idiosyncratic Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). None of the films, though, met with much commercial success. He finally broke his streak with a role in Woody Allen's 1972 film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). He then took a last-minute role in Mel Brooks' 1974 film Blazing Saddles.
Wilder began writing and starring in more films in 1974, starting with Young Frankenstein (in which he played Dr. Frederick Frankenstein). He also wrote, directed and starred in 1975's The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother and 1977's The World's Greatest Lover; the latter was a critical and commercial flop. He starred with comedian Richard Pryor in 1976's Silver Streak, the first of four collaborations with Pryor.
Relationship with Gilda Radner
In 1981, Wilder co-starred with Gilda Radner, a comedienne best known for her role as an original cast member on Saturday Night Live, in the Sidney Poitier-directed Hanky Panky. Although both were married at the time, they started a relationship on-set, and sought divorces so that they could be married in 1984. The two had great affection for each other, though Wilder later recalled being frustrated by her neediness. While trying to become pregnant, Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and passed away in 1989. To honor her memory, Wilder started Gilda's Club, a support group for cancer patients.
By the 1990s, a string of flopped movies and a quickly canceled television show led Wilder to effectively retire from show business. In 1999, he announced that he had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, from which he recovered with the help of chemotherapy and stem cell transplants. Though he appeared as a guest star on Will and Grace in 2003, he has since given up on show business: "I like show, but I don't like the business." In 2005, he published a memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art.
Wilder lives with his fourth wife, Karen Webb, in Connecticut. He continues to write, and has published two novels and a collection of short stories since 2007. "I'm not a natural writer like, let's say—I'm not talking about Arthur Miller, that's a whole other thing—but let's say Woody Allen. But the more I've written, the more I've found that there is a deep well in me somewhere that wants to express things that I'm not going to find unless I write them myself."