Gene Wilder, who brought an antic, zany energy to a series of Mel Brooks films, and was the screen’s first Willy Wonka, died August 28 in Stamford, CT. He was 83.
Mr. Wilder was ideally suited to his comedy era, a time that saw the rise of unconventional comic figures like Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce. A ball of barely-contained neurotic hysteria topped with an untamable mop of frizzy red hairy, he brought an edge to every role he played, as well as a pathos telegraphed by vulnerable blue eyes.
As the star of The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, Mr. Wilder was arguably the leading interpreter of Brooks’ gag-a-minute movies during the director’s heyday of the late 1960s and early 1970s. His sense of the madcap was well-suited to Brooks’ scattershot Borscht Belt style of comedy, but he also lent acting chops and a certain sweetness of personality to his performances.
He and Brooks—who had met through Brooks’ then girlfriend, Anne Bancroft—first teamed on The Producers, the 1967 tale of a bamboozling Broadway producer (Zero Mostel) who cooks up a scheme to make money from a show sure to bomb. Mr. Wilder played the meek accountant Leo Bloom who hatches the harebrained idea, and signs on as a co-conspirator out of a secret design to be a showman. Wilder and Mostel later reteamed for a film version of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist stage classic, Rhinoceros.
In Blazing Saddles, Brooks’ send-up of the Western movie genre, he was the alcoholic gunslinger, Jim, the Waco Kid, who joins forces with new sheriff, played by Cleavon Little. Wilder stepped into the role at the last minute as a replacement for the ailing Gig Young. The film was a success, grossing more than $100 million.
The Wilder-Brooks collaboration reached its apotheosis with Young Frankenstein in 1974. In the horror satire, Mr. Wilder played a distant relative of the infamous Dr. Frankenstein who journeys to Europe and gets caught up in his ancestor’s wicked ways. The movie, filmed in black-and-white and featuring a powerhouse supporting cast, including Madeline Kahn, Teri Garr and Peter Boyle, proved to be a series of scenic triumphs, with the crazed Mr. Wilder—frantic in one moment, subtle and deadpan in the next—at the center of most of them.
Mr. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay of Young Frankenstein with Brooks. They were nominated for an Oscar for their work. Mr. Wilder received a previous nomination for his acting in The Producers.
Young Frankenstein inspired Mr. Wilder to pursue a career as an auteur, like Brooks, writing and directing films like The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, The World’s Greatest Lover, The Woman in Red and Haunted Honeymoon.
He, however, continued to achieve his greatest successes solely as a performer. He was part of the starry cast of Silver Streak, a hit 1976 comedy thriller that took place on a train. The film teamed him with Richard Pryor for the first time. The pairing proved popular at the box office. The two comedians co-stared in two more films, Stir Crazy (1980), about two men framed for a robbery, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989), about two men, one blind, one deaf, who witness a murder.
Gene Wilder was born into a Jewish family of Russian extraction as Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He developed an interest in acting at age 11 and performed in local productions. He studied Communications and Theatre at the University of Iowa. Upon graduation, he was accepted at the Bristol Old Vict Theatre School in England. Back in the U.S., he enrolled at HB Studio in New York. He studied with Herbert Berghof and Uta Hagen, with a tour in the Army interrupting his training. He took his stage name from the hero in Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel, and the playwright Thornton Wilder.
In 1961, he made his Off-Broadway debut in the Arnold Wesker play Roots, and his Broadway debut in the Graham Greene play The Complaisant Lover.
During the 1960s, he played the Chaplain in a Jerome Robbins 1963 staging of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children; Billy Bibbit in a staging of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest the same year (with Kirk Douglas as McMurphy); improbably portrayed Presidents John Quincy Adams, John Van Buren and John Tyler in White House in 1964; and the hit comedy Luv, as a replacement actor.
Mr. Wilder made his first impression on film in an unexpected fashion, playing a nervous undertaker taken for a joy ride in the seminal 1967 crime film Bonnie and Clyde. Though only on screen for a few short scenes, he held his own against his co-stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. At the time, he considered himself more a dramatic actor. His appearance in The Producers the same year would, however, change that.
The most unusual credit of his long movie career, as the title candymaker in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, also ended up being one of his most memorable. Mr. Wilder played the off-kilter character with a mix of sweetness, idealism, sadism and menace that lent the film an beguiling darkness. (The moment early in the film where Wonka pretends to be lame and falls over was Wilder’s idea.) The film also showcased his light but pleasant tenor voice, something he also showed off to good effect in Young Frankenstein.
Though not a hit when it was released, the musical developed a cult following through frequent television airings.
In 1984, he married comic actress Gilda Radner, whom he met on the set of Hanky Panky. He was reportedly devastated by her death from ovarian cancer five years later. Thereafter, he acted only seldom. He recovered from a bout with cancer himself in 2000.
Previous marriages to Mary Mercier and Mary Joan Schutz ended in divorce. He is survived by his fourth wife, Karen Boyer, whom he married in 1991.
“Puttin’ on the Ritz” from Young Frankenstein:
Fountain Scene from The Producers: