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Gene Wilder (1933 – 2016)

by Linnea Crowther

Gene Wilder, the comic actor known for movies including “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Young Frankenstein,” has died at the age of 83.

Gene Wilder, the comic actor known for movies including “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Young Frankenstein,” has died at the age of 83, according to multiple news sources. Wilder’s nephew said Monday that the actor and writer died early Monday in Stamford, Connecticut, from complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Wilder is indelibly associated with many of the funniest films of the 1970s, but for many, it’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” that stands out as his defining film. Less laugh-out-loud funny than eccentric and odd, Wilder’s Wonka dealt strange fates to bad children as he ferried them around his magnificent candy factory.


Wilder was far from the only contender for the chocolatier’s role. In the movie’s developmental stages, producers considered actors including Fred Astaire and Joel Grey. Roald Dahl, author of the book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” as well as the adapted screenplay, liked Spike Milligan for the role. All six members of the Monty Python comedy troupe angled for it, as did Peter Sellers. But when Wilder – not yet a superstar, but with a career on the rise – auditioned, director Mel Stuart was sold. “I knew in my heart there could only be one person who could play Willy Wonka,” he told The Washington Post.

For Wilder’s part, he was interested in the role, but on one condition. He envisioned a very specific entrance for Wonka’s character, and he would only play it if he could do it his way. He described to Stuart exactly the entrance that became an unforgettable moment in the movie – it was written in, Wilder was cast, and a cult classic was born.

“Cult classic,” indeed, because the movie was a bit of a flop upon its 1971 release. Only in the years to follow would it gain the vaunted status it holds today, thanks in large part to Wilder’s unmatchable performance. So beloved is the movie, and Wilder’s Wonka, that when Tim Burton announced his 2005 remake starring Johnny Depp, many fans were up in arms. Wilder himself considered the reboot “an insult,” according to Moviefone, though others were converted upon seeing Depp’s performance. As for Depp, he played his Wonka quite differently from Wilder’s, then gave fond praise to Wilder’s performance: “Regardless of what one thinks of that film, Gene Wilder’s persona, his character, stands out,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “It was brilliant but subtle.”

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Wilder had been developing his acting chops for decades before that role, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he played it so perfectly. Born Jerome Silberman June 11, 1933, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he became determined to bring laughter to audiences after his mother had a heart attack and her doctor told the 8-year-old Wilder to avoid upsetting her – and try to make her laugh instead. It was scary advice for a kid, who worried he might kill his mother if he raised his voice. But the doctor’s orders lit the fire that would spark a comedic genius.

Wilder began studying acting as a young teen and eventually made his way to the Actors Studio, where he studied with the legendary instructor Lee Strasberg. He soon chose a stage name, paying homage to a character from Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” with Gene and to “Our Town” playwright Thornton Wilder with Wilder.

Concentrating on stage acting for a number of years, Wilder found his way to big-screen stardom via a 1963 production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and her Children.” He appeared in it alongside Anne Bancroft, who was dating Mel Brooks. She introduced the two men, and Brooks liked Wilder enough to offer him a role in a movie that was still very much on the horizon. Brooks called it “Springtime for Hitler,” but it would, over the course of the next five years, become “The Producers.” Wilder was in, but “The Producers” was delayed enough that it didn’t become his movie debut. That debut would come in “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), in which Wilder played Eugene Grizzard, a hostage of the famous criminals.

It would be 1968 when “The Producers” finally hit the big screen, with Wilder playing Leo Bloom to Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock. Brooks’ directorial debut, featuring its Nazi-themed musical-within-a-movie, opened to mixed reviews that suggested not everyone was ready for the brand of humor it was selling. But enough viewers loved it that Brooks won the Oscar for best original screenplay, and Wilder was nominated for his supporting role.

The recognition helped jump-start Wilder’s career, and more successful roles followed. After “Willy Wonka,” he appeared in Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask)” (1972), played twins in “Start the Revolution Without Me” (1970) and portrayed the Fox in “The Little Prince” (1974). 1974 also brought two more collaborations with Brooks.

Wilder wasn’t originally intended to appear in Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles,” but when Gig Young became too ill to continue in his role as the Waco Kid at the last minute, Brooks called on Wilder. All the while, Wilder was working on a script of his own, focusing on the grandson of Victor Frankenstein. He wanted Brooks to direct, and though Brooks wasn’t initially interested, Wilder finally brought him around to the idea of “Young Frankenstein.” Wilder starred, and the film became both a box-office hit and a classic. When asked by an audience at a screening which of his movies was his favorite, the Stamford Advocate reported, Wilder chose “Young Frankenstein,” saying, “I didn’t even have to think about it. I think I was happier doing that film than any other.”

In 1975, Wilder debuted as a director with “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother,” which he not only starred in, but also wrote. It reunited him with “Young Frankenstein” co-stars Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman. The film was the first of four that placed Wilder as writer, director and star. The others were “The World’s Greatest Lover” (1977), “The Woman in Red” (1984) and “Haunted Honeymoon” (1986).

As popular as Wilder’s collaborations with Brooks were his co-starring roles with Richard Pryor, the first of which came with 1975’s “Silver Streak.” They would reunite in “Stir Crazy” (1980), “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” (1989) and “Another You” (1991). The two were comedy gold as an on-screen partnership, though they weren’t particularly good friends off-screen. The Grio reported that Wilder once said of their chemistry, “We turned it on for the camera, then turned it off.”

One relationship in which the chemistry proved as strong in real life as in the movies was Wilder’s romance with Gilda Radner. When they met as the co-stars of “Hanky Panky” (1982), Radner was married to guitarist G.E. Smith and Wilder was twice divorced. They quickly became friends, and the attraction was undeniable. They worked together again in 1984’s “The Woman in Red,” and by late 1984 they were married. The couple remained together as Radner battled ovarian cancer, and after her death in 1989, Wilder co-founded Gilda’s Club, a support group for people with cancer.

After starring on the single-season sitcom “Something Wilder” (1994), Wilder stepped back from acting work in the 1990s, retiring entirely after a 2003 appearance on TV’s “Will and Grace.” A few years later, he confirmed in an interview with Alec Baldwin that he chose not to act anymore, in large part because he was uninterested in contemporary scripts. They were, he felt, too reliant on profanity. “Even if the plot sounds interesting, the script is terrible,” he said. “That’s why I’m not doing movies.”

Instead, Wilder turned to writing. He began with a memoir, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art” (2005). The title was courtesy of Radner, and the books discussed their relationship as well as Radner’s life beginning with childhood. Wilder followed the memoir with novels: “My French Whore” (2007), “The Woman Who Wouldn’t” (2008) and “Something To Remember You By: A Perilous Romance” (2013), as well as a collection of short stories titled, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” (2010).

Married since 1991 to Karen Webb, who survives him, Wilder told Time Out that he enjoyed writing because it allowed him to be at home and spend time with Webb. “I write in my study, get up at 12:30 or 1 p.m., have a cup of tea, give my wife a little kiss, come back in and write some more, and then at 3:30 or 4 say, ‘That’s enough.'”

Many stars paid tribute to the great Gene Wilder on social media:

Mel Brooks – “Gene Wilder-One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship.”

Billy Crystal – “Gene Wilder was a giant of comedy. His legacy of films is inspiring. A true genius.”

Elizabeth Banks – “I just bought a vintage Blazing Saddles poster. 3 days ago. Gene Wilder made my [❤️] dance – you bad, and now may you rest in peace.”

Debra Messing – “A man who lit up the world with his joy and genius. I can’t say what it meant to act with him and get to know his heart. [❤️] RIP.”

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