Another great lost in 2016.
Born Jerome Silberman on 11th June, 1933 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He would later become known professionally as Gene Wilder and over the years he became a legend not only on the stage and screen, but also as a writer and director. He took his stage of Gene Wilder name at 26.
Gene Wilder: “I had always liked Gene because of Thomas Wolfe’s character Eugene Gant in Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River. And I was always a great admirer of Thornton Wilder.”
Wilder’s first on screen appearance was in the classic Bonnie and Clyde (1967) where he played a hostage. But his big break in films came in the Mel Brooks directed The Producers (1968) where Wilder played Leopold Bloom and even earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. This film also sparked off a long lasting friendship between Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder that would endure for decades.
It was in 1971 when Wilder auditioned for what would probably become his most famous role.
He managed to land the role of Willy Wonka in Mel Stuart’s film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. You know that whole initial entrance Wonka has in that film where he walks towards the crowd with a limp and carrying a cane. Then the cane gets stuck in between the cobblestones and he falls forward, but turns it into a forward roll and bounces back up to his feet? Well that was Gene’s idea as he thought it would show a level of uncertainty about the character as to whether he was lying or not, which is something that is played upon later in the film several times. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was not a huge critical or box office success at the time and even Roald Dahl himself disliked the adaption. But the film gained a cult following over the years and cemented Wilder as one of the all time greats.
Wilder struggled to find a big hit and pretty much every film he starred in at the time had been flops. Woody Allen offered him a role in one segment of his 1972 comedy film, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). And the film was a success, finally putting an end to Wilder’s string of cinematic flops. It was also around this time when he began writing an little idea for a film he had called Young Frankenstein, an idea he took to Mel Brooks. Mel initially turned the film down, Wilder forgot all about the project and moved onto other things. It was when Wilder’s agent, Mike Medavoy who asked Wilder if he had any ideas for two other clients Medavoy had (Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman) that he decided to restart his little Young Frankenstein idea and again see if Mel Brooks would be interested in directing to which he finally agreed, but Brooks was too busy filming something else to commit. Brooks offered Wilder a role in his new film in the meantime until he was free to direct Young Frankenstein…
Blazing Saddles (1974) was a moderate hit at the time but eventually became a comedy classic in its own right with Gene Wilder playing Jim, the “Waco Kid”. In 2006, Blazing Saddles was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Both Wilder and Brooks were now free to get to work on the Young Frankenstein film which eventually became a huge commercial success. Wilder and Brooks received Best Adapted Screenplay nominations at the 1975 Oscars for the film but lost out to Francis Coppola and Mario Puzo for their adaptation of The Godfather Part II. But now with Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein both being big hits for Wilder and Brooks, this opened the doors for both of them to try other projects and next up, Wilder wrote and and made his directorial debut with The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975).
Sometime in 1975, Wilder’s agent sent him a script for a film titled Super Chief and he even suggested Richard Pryor for a part in the film. The title of the film was changed to Silver Streak (1976) and marked the beginning of yet another long lasting partnership.
For the rest of the 70s, Wilder wrote, produced and directed several films including The World’s Greatest Lover (1977) and The Frisco Kid (1979) which was originally to star John Wayne, but due to ill health he couldn’t commit and sadly died in June 1979. The part was then offered to some newcomer called Harrison Ford instead.
As the new decade of the 80s rolled around, Wilder went from strength to strength first appearing alongside Richard Pryor once more in the Sidney Poitier directed film Stir Crazy (1980). Wilder also directed his third film, The Woman in Red (1984) which won an Oscar for Best Original Song for Stevie Wonder’s song “I Just Called to Say I Love You”.
The 80s were coming to a close and the idea to team up Wilder and Pryor once more came about with the film See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989).
The 90s marked the end of an era for both Wilder and Pryor when they starred in the film, Another You (1991) which would prove to be not only the final film on which they would work together on, but also the final appearance in a starring role for both of them. Though Wilder and Pryor made other appearances in films and TV shows, neither of them ever starred in a feature film again and Pryor died in 2005. Strangely enough, while Wilder and Pryor had one of the most memorable onscreen friendships, they never got on off screen and were far from friends.
In 1994, Wilder did star in the sitcom, Something Wilder. As well as appearing in the TV movies, Alice in Wonderland, Murder in a Small Town and The Lady in Question. Wilder also guest stared in the sitcom Will & Grace and even won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor on a Comedy Series for his role.
While no longer a star of the big screen and only making small appearances on TV. Wilder was still considered one of the all time greats and still kept himself busy through the 2000s with his writing. In 2005, he wrote and released his highly personal memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art. In 2007, Wilder also wrote his first novel, My French Whore and followed that up in 2008 with a second, The Woman Who Wouldn’t. In 2010 he then released a collection of stories called What Is This Thing Called Love? And In 2013 he wrote his third novel, Something to Remember You By: A Perilous Romance.
Gene Wilder died at the age of 83 on the 28th August, 2016, at home in Stamford, Connecticut, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Gene Wilder: “I never thought of it as God. I didn’t know what to call it. I don’t believe in devils, but demons I do because everyone at one time or another has some kind of a demon, even if you call it by another name, that drives them.”
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