Gene Wilder, who went from comic actor to acclaimed writer/director, passed away earlier this month due to complications with Alzheimer’s Disease. His death was announced by his family today. The star of such films as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Producers,” and “Young Frankenstein” was 83.
Born Jerome Silberman in June 1933 in Milwaukee, Wilder began having success on Broadway in the early 1960s. In 1963 he appeared opposite Anne Bancroft in the play “Mother Courage and Her Children.” Bancroft introduced Wilder to her boyfriend at the time, Mel Brooks, and the two began a long association.
After appearing in a small role in the film “Bonnie and Clyde,” Brooks cast Wilder as fussy accountant Leo Bloom in his Oscar-winning 1967 film “The Producers.” Holding his own against the great Zero Mostel, Wilder earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In 1971 he played the title character in the film he would most be associated with, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Ironically, his co-star was Jack Albertson, who had won the Oscar Wilder had been nominated for.
In 1974, with 48 hours notice, Brooks asked Wilder to take over the role of the Waco Kid in the film “Blazing Saddles.” The actor originally cast, Oscar-winner Gig Young, had long battled with alcoholism and had arrived to the set in bad shape. While shooting the film, Wilder showed Brooks a script he had been writing titled “Young Frankenstein.” The two men collaborated on the script and Brooks agreed to direct it. Wilder had one condition – Brooks could not appear on-screen, as he felt that would ruin the illusion of the film. Brooks consented, though he does “appear” a few times as various sounds, including the cat that screams during the dart game. The film earned Wilder his second Oscar nomination, sharing it with Brooks for Best Screenplay Based on Another Medium.
In 1975, Wilder became a triple threat, writing, directing and starring in “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.” Surrounding himself with familiar faces like Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman, the film began a successful string of films written and directed by Wilder, including “The World’s Greatest Lover,” “Haunted Honeymoon,” and “The Woman in Red.”
Having worked with Richard Pryor on “Blazing Saddles” (Pryor co-wrote the script), Wilder was happy to appear with him on screen. The two co-starred in “Silver Streak” in 1976 and “Stir Crazy” in 1980, the latter film being directed by Sidney Poitier. Poitier also cast Wilder in his next film, “Hanky Panky.” It was on the set of this film that Wilder first met Gilda Radner. The two became quick friends and eventually married in September 1984. They remained together until her death on May 20, 1989. Following her death he co-founded Gilda’s Club, an organization that works to fight ovarian cancer. Each year the families on the block I live in hold a “Marathon” run, selling t-shirts to raise money, which is donated to Gilda’s Club.
Following Radner’s death Wilder began to curtail his work load. making only two feature films and starring in a short-lived television series called “Something Wilder.” He appeared in three made-for-television films in 1999 and a couple episodes of “Will and Grace.” His last acting credit was a voice-over last year in the animated series “Yo Gabba Gabba!”
Wilder turned his attention to writing in the late 1990s, beginning with a book highlighting his experiences dealing with ovarian cancer entitled “Gilda’s Disease: Sharing Personal Experiences and a Medical Perspective on Ovarian Cancer,” which he co wrote with M. Steven Piver. In 2006 he released his autobiography, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art.” He also wrote four novels: “My French Whores,” “The Woman Who Wouldn’t,” “What is This Thing Called Love?,” and “Something to Remember You.”
Mr. Wilder is survived by his fourth wife, Karen.
Here are my top 10 Gene Wilder performances:
1. Dr. Victor Frankenstein in “Young Frankenstein.” Whether he’s angrily denying his family heritage or fighting for his life while playing charades, this is a performance that deserved an Oscar nomination.
2. Leo Bloom in “The Producers.” From his first appearance, where he tells Zero Mostel, “I’m sorry I caught you with the old lady” to the final scene in prison, his blue blanket clutching accountant is one of the most brilliant characters in film history.
3. The Waco Kid in “Blazing Saddles.” “Little bastard shot me in the ass!”
4. Willy Wonka in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” 45 years later children still love him.
5. George Caldwell in “Silver Streak.” Just an every-man who must rise to the occasion to save the woman he loves. He and Richard Pryor together are comedy gold.
6. Rudy Valentine in “The World’s Greatest Lover.” Though the film is primarily a comedy, there are some tender scenes with Wilder revealing how much he loves his wife.
7. Skip Donahue in “Stir Crazy.” Once again, he and Pryor form one of the greatest comedy teams ever assembled on film.
8. Sigerson Holmes in “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.” As the younger brother who refuses to accept his sibling is a great detective (he calls him “Shear-Luck”), Wilder pulls off the triple threat of writer/director/star with ease. In honor of this film, when I finish writing I’m going to do the Kangaroo Hop!
9. Teddy Pierce in “The Woman in Red.” As a man facing middle-age, Wilder never seems to be able to catch a break.
10. Avram in “The Frisco Kid.” As the rabbi from Poland who is heading to San Francisco, Wilder and Harrison Ford have a fun time in the Wild West.