Who Was Gene Wilder?
Gene Wilder began his movie career in 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, but he became famous as a favorite of writer/director Mel Brooks. His wacky roles in films such as Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankensteineimade him an unforgettable comedy icon. In his later years, Wilder became a serious novelist, writing a memoir and several novels. He was married to fellow actor/comedian Gilda Radner, until her death in 1989. He died on August 28, 2016, at the age of 83.
Wilder was born Jerome Silberman 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 eight-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 Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
After graduating from high school, Wilder studied communication and theater 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 Silberman 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.
Lead in 'Willy Wonka'
Wilder made his film debut with a minor role in 1967's Bonnie and Clyde. He took on his first major role a year later 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, including the idiosyncratic title character in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
Willy Wonka brought to life the weird and wild Roald Dahl book of the same name, and it thoroughly established Wilder as a leading man who could hold his own in any comedic situation. As the enigmatic Wonka, Wilder chewed the scenery right into a Golden Globe nomination for best actor and became known to a legion of young filmgoers.
Despite Wilder's personal success, though, none of his films of this period met with much commercial success. He finally broke that 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 Brooks's 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles, a decision that would help define his career.
'Blazing Saddles' and 'Young Frankenstein'
Blazing Saddles was a western like no other, and it set out to offend every viewer equally, becoming a cult classic. 1974 was a particularly full year for Wilder releases, as he was reunited with Mostel for Rhinoceros, played a fox in The Little Prince, and co-wrote Young Frankenstein with Brooks. Like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein set out to turn an established genre, this time horror, on its head. Starring Wilder as the infamous Dr. Frankenstein's grandson, the longstanding audience favorite is unrelenting in its jokes and sight gags, and co-stars Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn and Peter Boyle as the monster.
Wilder also wrote, directed and starred in 1975's The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother and 1977's The World's Greatest Lover. While Young Frankenstein was a hit and achieved a huge cult following, the others failed to gain positive critical response and were commercially unsuccessful.
Films With Richard Pryor
Still, Wilder was able to forge ahead with a film career well into the next decade. He co-starred with Richard Pryor in four projects: Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991). Stir Crazy, in which Wilder and Pryor played prison inmates, was a notable hit, and like Blazing Saddles before it, the film helped to cement Wilder's reputation as a screen legend.
In 1979, Wilder’s performance in another western comedy, The Frisco Kid, drew praise. In the film, he plays a Polish rabbi who is traveling west and is befriended by a bank robber, played by Harrison Ford. Other films from this period include The Woman in Red (1984) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986).
Relationship With Gilda Radner
In 1981, Wilder co-starred with 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.
During the 1990s, Wilder was involved in a string of flopped movies and quickly canceled television shows. But in 1999, Wilder starred in and co-wrote A+E Television's Murder in a Small Town. Set in 1938, the TV-movie tells the story of "Cash" Carter (Wilder), a successful Broadway director who leaves New York City to run a theater company in Connecticut. There he teams up with his police officer friend and becomes involved with solving the murder of a wealthy businessman. When Murder in a Small Town premiered, it became the second-highest rated A&E Original Movie. That same year, Wilder announced that he had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, from which he recovered with the help of chemotherapy and stem cell transplants. When the '90s came to a close, Wilder effectively retired from show business. Though he appeared as a guest star on Will and Grace in 2002 and 2003, he soon gave 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.
Life as a Writer
Wilder continued to write and 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," Wilder said in a 1999 New York Times interview.
Personal Life and Death
Wilder was married four times. His first marriage to wife Mary Mercier lasted five years from 1960-1965. He then married Mary Joan Schutz in 1967 and adopted her daughter, Katharine, whom he later became estranged to after he and Schutz split. Wilder married SNL alum Radner in 1984 and were together until her death in 1989. Wilder married Karen Webb in 1991.
Wilder died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease on August 28, 2016, in Stamford, Connecticut. He was 83.
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