Jerome Silberman could not have chosen a better stage name than “Gene Wilder.” In his best roles he was always wilder than anyone else on screen, possessed of a fine madness.
Consider meek accountant Leo Bloom’s tongue-tied, tortured first meeting with showman Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) in The Producers (1968), for which he received an Oscar nomination. In an effort to calm Bloom, who clutches a security blanket, Bialystock slaps him (“I’m in pain!”) and throws cold water in his face (“I’m wet!”). It fails. “I’m in pain…and I’m wet . . .and I’m still hysterical!” he wails, before eventually pulling himself together to conspire with Bialystock to produce the hoped-for biggest flop ever to hit Broadway, Springtime for Hitler.
Or Frederick Frankenstein . . .make that “Fronkensteen,” as Frederick attempts to reestablish his family’s good name (with a different pronunciation) in Young Frankenstein (1974). But he’s drawn helplessly into monster-making anyway, reanimating the Monster (Peter Boyle) in an ecstasy of lightning (“Alive! It’s alive! It’s alive!”), then soothing his creation: “Hello handsome. You're a good-looking fellow, do you know that . . .?
Then, on the lam from the authorities with Richard Pryor in the action comedy Silver Streak (1976), the famous “be black” routine, where Wilder adopts blackface and a hipper attitude to escape detection. The lines are Pryor’s (“How are you gonna walk outta here with a tan face and that white walk? Just get into the music!”); the awkward, jerky movements, in a bit of racial humor that might have soured in lesser hands (and feet), are classic Wilder silliness.
Wilder’s partnerships with Mel Brooks, who directed him in The Producers, Young Frankenstein, and the uproarious Western spoof Blazing Saddles (1973), and Blazing Saddles co-writer Pryor, with whom he was paired in three other films after Silver Streak, yielded some of his biggest hits. Solo, he was most memorable in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971), a role that no one particularly wanted him for—but when he auditioned for director Mel Stuart, after a short list that included Peter Sellers and Joel Grey was exhausted, the role of the mysterious chocolatier was instantly his. Not a hit, the film grew into a cult sensation, and Wilder’s enigmatic, unpredictable, even dangerous performance continues to delight children of all ages. Whether whispering “help, help,” as the wicked kids who have won golden tickets and a chance at Wonka’s fortune meet their comically awful fates, or warbling an ode to the creative mind, “Pure Imagination,” Wilder plunges deep into humor, absurdity, and feeling.
“I’m funny on camera sometimes,” he said. “In life, once in a while. Once in a while.” Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on June 11, 1933, Wilder recalled hard knocks, including anti-Semitic bullying and sexual assault at a military institute. Acting provided an escape; so did fencing, a skill he employed, comically, in some of his movies. His studies led him to New York, first to the Herbert Berghof Studio, then the Actors Studio, from which he emerged as Gene (from a relative whose exploits in World War II were family legend) Wilder (from playwright Thornton Wilder, of Our Town fame).
1963 was a pivotal year, as he appeared on Broadway in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as the doomed asylum inmate Billy Bibbit opposite Kirk Douglas, and a production of Mother Courage and Her Children. Its star, Anne Bancroft, introduced him to her husband, Mel Brooks, who was working on what would become the Oscar-winning screenplay of The Producers. He felt Wilder perfect for Bloom, and asked him to keep his schedule open. Four years later, cameras finally rolled, by which time Wilder had made his screen debut in an unexpected hit, Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
Outside of a segment in Woody Allen’s popular 1972 comedy Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), where his doctor character was in love with a sheep, the next few years were hitless for Wilder, and for Brooks as well. Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, for which they received Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, turned things around. (“I think I was happier doing that film than any other,” he said of Young Frankenstein.) Wilder parlayed their success into two films he wrote and directed, the Brooks-like spoof The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975) and The World’s Greatest Lover, a slightly less zany reworking of Federico Fellini’s silent movie homage The White Sheik (1952).
Silver Streak led to the prison-set comedy Stir Crazy (1980), which, sparked by the reteaming of Wilder and Pryor, was the third highest-grossing film of the year, behind The Empire Strikes Back and Nine to Five. Pryor’s cocaine use and erratic behavior made for a difficult shoot but the chemistry remained intact, highlighted by a scene where they try to display toughness (“We bad!”) to their fellow inmates. “The timing of everything we did onscreen came so spontaneously to us that it was almost like sexual attraction,” Wilder commented.
It was precisely that sort of attraction that buoyed Hanky Panky (1982), a Wilder-Pryor script that found its way to the screen as an action-packed comedy romance pairing Wilder with former Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner. The movie was not a hit, nor were two films Wilder directed them in, The Woman in Red (1984) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986). Off camera was a different story, however, as Wilder and Radner fell in love on the set of Hanky Panky and married in 1984. It was a happy union, one cut tragically short when Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989, at age 42.
Gilda’s Club, the community organization for cancer patients and their families that Wilder co-founded in New York in 1995, is his lasting legacy. (Now known as the Cancer Support Community, it has 20 affiliate branches.) By the mid-90s, he had largely left show business. “I liked the show but not the business,” he said.
Another You (1991), a fourth film with Pryor after the disability-based antics of 1989’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil, was his final movie. He and his fourth wife, Karen Webb, met on the set of See No Evil, where she taught him lip reading. They married in 1991 and resided in Stamford, Connecticut, where Wilder wrote several books. “I can write, take a break, come out, have a glass of tea, give my wife a kiss, and go back in and write some more. I am really lucky,” he said.
Wilder, a faithful attendee of Stamford’s Avon cinema, began hosting his own program, called Wilder’s Picks. At the popular annual event he chatted about his work, and returned audiences to his world of pure imagination.
Three years ago, Wilder was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, but kept he his condition private so he wouldn't disappoint fans, according to a report by the Associated Press. "He simply couldn't bear the idea of one less smile in the world," his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said in a statement.
The comedy legend died from complications of the disease at his home in Stamford on August 28th.