The American actor Gene Wilder (1933–2016) was one of the top stars of American cinema in the 1970s and early 1980s. Earning both critical acclaim and box-office success, he became best known for his onscreen comic collaborations with writer-director Mel Brooks, among them the films The Producers and Young Frankenstein.
Gene Wilder became a familiar figure to motionpicture fans by cultivating a mild-mannered and bewildered comic persona that also suggested an underlying mania. To much acclaim, he starred in films directed by Mel Brooks, the most famous being 1974's Young Frankenstein, which, co-written by Wilder and Brooks, spoofed the classic horror story. He also starred in the 1971 musical fantasy children's film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which quickly gained recognition as a classic of family film. Wilder emerged in later life as a writer and promoter of cancer research, the latter motivated by the death of his wife, comedienne Gilda Radner, in 1989.
Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on June 11, 1933. His father, William Wilder, was a Russian-Jewish immigrant who made and distributed toys and small novelty items. The central figure of his childhood was his mother, the former Jeanne Baer, who suffered from heart disease; the family physician advised young Jerome to help make his mother laugh rather than allow her to become emotionally upset, which could kill her. As a young teen, his comic talent sparked an interest in acting, but his education was interrupted by a two-year stint at the Black-Foxe military school in California.
After returning home and graduating from high school, Wilder enrolled at the University of Iowa, where he majored in communication and theatre arts and graduated in 1955. He took the stage name Gene Wilder when he was 26, borrowing the surname from playwright Thornton Wilder and the first name from that of a character in writer Thomas Wolfe's bestselling novel Look Homeward, Angel.
Committing to acting as a career, Wilder spent a year in Bristol, England, at the Old Vic Theatre School. During this period, he studied fencing and became skillful enough that he could fund his early acting career by giving fencing lessons. Wilder returned to the United States and attended classes at the Actors Studio in New York City, the epicenter of so-called “Method Acting,” which required actors to draw on their own experiences. He was drafted into the military in 1956 and served a two-year stint, requesting duty at a U.S. Army psychiatric hospital in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. “I wasn't wrong,” he later observed, as quoted by Daniel Lewis in the New York Times.
Wilder moved from the Broadway stage to Hollywood via a small but memorable role in Arthur Penn's 1967 gangster film Bonnie and Clyde, appearing as an undertaker trapped in the back seat of a car as it is stolen. He had heard nothing about the Nazi musical for three years; now, Brooks knocked on his door and, according to Lewis, announced “You didn't think I forgot, did you?”
Brooks's concept about a stage musical gone wrong became the 1968 hit film The Producers. The first collaboration between the two men, it featured Wilder in the role of an accountant who hatches the swindling scheme. The Producers brought him an Academy Award nomination, followed by the lead in 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, an adaptation of a children's book by British author Roald Dahl. In the story, an eccentric genius named Willy Wonka and his team of Oompa Loompas preside over a candy factory visited by children from around the world.
Although the film initially flopped, it allowed Wilder to further hone his comic persona. In the role of Wonka, he insisted that he be allowed to make his first entrance hobbling with a cane, only to turn a quick somersault when he falls. “Because from that time on, no one will know if I'm lying or telling the truth,” he later explained, as quoted by Peter Debruge in Variety.
Wilder teamed with another major comic writer of the 1970s, Woody Allen, in 1972's Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (but Were Afraid to Ask), taking a deadpan turn as a doctor who falls in love with a sheep. In 1973 he reunited with Brooks for the Western spoof Blazing Saddles. Although the film's raunchy, gross-out comedy routines were widely discussed at the time, Wilder was cast in a relatively restrained role as the Waco Kid, a gunslinger who supports a black sheriff played by Cleavon Little. Blazing Saddles was commercially and critically successful, giving Wilder and Brooks increased latitude to devise their next project.
The idea for their next film, 1974's Young Frankenstein, was entirely Wilder's, although Brooks was persuaded of its potential and the pair earned a joint Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. In the film, Wilder plays a Dr. Frederick Frankenstein with his madcap side barely in check. A descendant of the creator of the legendary Frankenstein's monster, he travels to Transylvania on hearing that he has inherited the family estate. There he encounters an ensemble of comic characters that includes housekeeper Frau Blöcher (Cloris Leachman), singer Lili von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn), and the monster himself (Peter Boyle).
The popularity of Young Frankenstein led Wilder to several other film roles during the 1970s, and he appeared in Rhinoceros (1974), a version of an absurdist play by Eugène Ionesco, as well as in 1975's The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes's Smarter Brother and the 1976 film Silver Streak, a romantic thriller-caper set on a transcontinental train.
Silver Streak marked Wilder's first on-screen collaboration with black comedian Richard Pryor, whom he had met while filming Blazing Saddles; Pryor contributed to the screenplay of that film. The rapport between the two on the 1980 Sidney Poitier-directed prison comedy Stir Crazy pro-pelled that film to substantial box-office success; much of its humor rested on the pair's hapless yet tense attempts to show their toughness to a group of hardened criminals among whom they had landed. Wilder and Pryor would reunite, with less success, in See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991).
Radner's death inspired Wilder to begin a second creative career as a writer. His 1998 book Gilda's Disease: Sharing Personal Experiences and a Medical Perspective on Ovarian Cancer shares his wife's struggle with the deadly disease. He also authored a memoir, Kiss Me like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art (2006), and produced three novels: My French Whore (2007), The Woman Who Wouldn't (2008), and Something to Remember You By: A Perilous Romance (2013). In 2010 he produced his final work, the short-story collection What Is This Thing Called Love?
Wilder gave up acting in films after costarring with Pryor in Another You (1991); although he considered several new scripts, he was dismayed by their violence and crudeness. He appeared in the television series Something Wilder in 1994 and 1995, and in a London stage production of Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor in 1997. Wilder won an Emmy award for his appearance in an episode of the television series Will & Grace in 2003.
In 1999 Wilder survived a bout with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but in 2013 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He died from complications of that disease at his home in Stamford, Connecticut, on August 29, 2016.
Wilder, Gene, Kiss Me like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, St. Martin's Press, 2005.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 20, 2016, “Gene Hid His Illness, He Didn't Want Children to Know Willy Wonka Was Sick.”
Mirror (London, England), May 13, 2005, Michael Posner, “Gene Wilder.”
New York Times, August 30, 2016, Daniel Lewis, “Gene Wilder, Star of ‘Young Frankenstein’ and ‘The Producers.’”
Variety, August 30, 2016, Peter Debruge, “Gene Wilder Radiated with Comic Energy.”
Washington Post, August 29, 2016, Alexander Remington, “Gene Wilder, 83, Actor Known for Nimble Portrayals of Neurotics.”
Allmovie, https://www.allmovie.com/artist/p116771 (November 27, 2017), Sandra Brennan, “Gene Wilder Biography.”□