On August 29, 2016, actor and director Gene Wilder died of Alzheimer's Disease in Stamford, Connecticut at the age of 83. Over the course of his career, he is best known for his comedic roles in films such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and three collaborations with Mel Brooks (two of which received him Oscar nominations). With a lengthy and impressive career, he was a funny man who complimented his co-stars while also being able to make characters with an understated nuttiness. With several iconic films to his credit and activism in cancer research through Gilda's Club, he was a passionate man who made the most of his career by making people laugh and love. His talents loom large over pop culture, and his presence will be greatly missed.
Gene Wilder was born as Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father was a manufacturer and salesman of novelty items. At the age of 11, he watched his sister perform and wished to join the class that she was in. The teacher said to come back when he was 13. His passion only grew from there with several small theater gigs. By age 15, he first performed publicly as Balthazar in a production of Romeo & Juliet. He graduated from Washington High School in 1951. He studied Communication and Theater Arts at the University of Iowa. Shortly after, he studied fencing at Bristol Old Vic Theater School and picked up on the sport very well. He was also drafted into the Army in 1956. Upon completing recruit training, he suggested that he wanted to stay close to New York City where he could take acting classes. He was a medic for the local group.
At the age of 26, Silberman officially became Gene Wilder on the belief that "Jerome Silberman in Macbeth" didn't have a good ring to it. He later admitted that "Gene Wilder in Macbeth" didn't sound much better. However, the name was expertly chosen. Gene was a reference to Thomas Wolfe's protagonist Eugene Grant in "Look Homeward, Angel" and "Of Time and the River." Wilder was taken from playwright Thornton Wilder. He made his debut in a 1961 episode of The Play of the Week. Shortly after, he had his cinematic debut in Bonnie & Clyde as a hostage.
It was during this time that he met Mel Brooks, who was working on the screenplay Springtime for Hitler (which would become The Producers). Brooks suggested that they work together, though it would be several years before The Producers would get made. It gave Wilder his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The film was considered a flop, but lead to two more partnerships. He starred in Blazing Saddles following a last minute drop-out of Dan Dailey. Wilder wrote Young Frankenstein with intent of working with Brooks, who was initially against it. However, when Wilder's manager asked him to create a vehicle co-starring new clients Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle, things began to click. The film earned Wilder and Brooks a joint Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
While they technically didn't star together, Blazing Saddles writer Richard Pryor went on to work with Wilder on a series of successful buddy comedies. Their first was Silver Streak, which started them off as the most successful interracial comedy duo in cinematic history. Director Sidney Poitier worked with Wilder and Pryor on Stir Crazy, which was also a hit. However, it was Wilder's next collaboration with Poitier, Hanky Panky, that lead him to meet future wife Gilda Radner. She was was his third of four wives, but their chemistry was an endearing part of comedy history. Along with directing and writing his own films, Wilder would act alongside Pryor and Radner in a variety of projects for the remaining decade. Pryor's multiple sclerosis made his movie career diminish and the duo last appeared together in Another You in 1991. While Wilder would make cameos in other projects for the rest of his career, 1991 was the end of his most active period.
Among the most noteworthy achievements of Wilder outside of acting is his interest in expanding cancer research. This was largely due to Radner's condition following ovarian cancer; which took her life in 1989. Wilder co-founded Gilda's Club, which existed as a support group for cancer patients. He also helped to find the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles, California. Gilda's Club has become a national organization that can be found throughout the United States. Beyond this, Wilder has remained very secretive and refuses to discuss politics publicly. In fact, he has stated that he is tired of show business, claiming to like the show but not the business. He also thought that movies were too explicit and that he would only come out of retirement if the project struck him right (it never did). He turned to writing several novels as well as water painting. Following his retirement, he became very private and rarely gave public interviews.
Wilder's career is one full of great and iconic characters. His performance as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory worked because he convinced Mel Stuart to direct his introduction scene the way that he wanted, as to convince the audience that Wonka could or couldn't be telling the truth. It was in the sly moves like this that Wilder was best, choosing to find playfulness in comedy while also being able to elevate his costars, whether they be Wilder, Pryor, or Radner. His work in comedy in remarkable and reflects the powers of what a passionate actor can do with the right material. To some, he is Willy Wonka. To others, he's Dr. Frankenstein (Pronounced: Fron-Ken-Steen). Whatever the case may be, he meant a lot to anyone who has watched comedy in the last 50 years, and that's saying something.