Gene Wilder, the blue-eyed, frazzle-haired actor who elevated panic to a comic art form in frequent collaboration with Mel Brooks (The Producers, Young Frankenstein) and Richard Pryor (Silver Streak, Stir Crazy), died on Sunday in Stamford, Connecticut, from complications from Alzheimer’s disease. His family confirmed the news to the AP. Wilder was 83.
Wilder perhaps is most fondly remembered as the captivating candy man and “Pure Imagination” crooner of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Blazing Saddles, helmed by Brooks and co-written by Brooks and Pryor, and Bonnie and Clyde are two other classics among Wilder’s roughly three dozen TV and film credits.
Though associated with funnymen Brooks and Pryor — Wilder worked on three movies in all with Brooks, and costarred opposite Pryor in four — Wilder was quietly adamant that he was not a comic.
“I am really not — except in a comedy film,” Wilder said in 2013.
Maybe because others perceived him as an actor first as well, Wilder was the rare comedy star who was made welcome at the grownup table. He was twice nominated for an Oscar: a Best Supporting Actor nod for The Producers and a screenplay nod for his and Brooks’s Young Frankenstein.
Wilder was previously married to the late Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner, and in the wake of her death in 1989, became a leading proponent of ovarian cancer screening and research. He’s survived by his fourth wife, Karen Webb.
Born Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933, in Milwaukee, the future star became a comic actor almost from the start, and for a tragic reason: His mother suffered from heart disease, and since it was feared stress would kill her, laughter was demanded. Wilder, who went on to be one of the screen’s leading neurotics, would trace his own neuroses to the experience.
“My mother was suffering every day of her life and what right did I have to be happy if she was suffering?” Wilder told the Washington Post in 2005. “So whenever I got happy about something, I felt the need to cut it off, and the only way to cut it off was to pray. ‘Forgive me Lord.’ For what, I didn’t know.”
Wilder’s mother survived into his early 20s; she died as Radner would decades later, of ovarian cancer. By the time of his mother’s death, Wilder was already a veteran actor, having been drawn to the stage as a teen. His early life took the familiar course of the draft-era young man: college (University of Iowa, then England’s Bristol Old Vic Theatre), then the Army, then back to civilian life. The former Jerome Silberman marked his return with a new name: Gene, depending on the source, chosen either in honor of a Thomas Wolfe character or his late mother, Jeanne; Wilder, for the author Thornton Wilder.
Wilder began to appear on the Broadway stage in the early 1960s. The 1963 play, Mother Courage and Her Children, paired him with Anne Bancroft, and brought him into the orbit of her then-boyfriend, Brooks.
Four years later, in 1967, and a few months after he’d made his film debut in Bonnie and Clyde, Wilder starred in Brooks’ The Producers. (Because the future classic was a slow-starter, to put it mildly, The Producers was not released in New York and Los Angeles until 1968.)
In Bonnie and Clyde and The Producers, Wilder played mild-mannered types driven to hyperventilation by bank robbers (the former) and a scheming Broadway impresario (the latter). The parts arguably were his destiny: “When God saw Gene Wilder,” Brooks was quoted as saying, “He said, ‘That is prey. And we’ll put him on Earth and everybody will chase him and have some fun.'”
In his mid-30s, and amid the “New Hollywood” revolution, Wilder was suddenly a leading man. He was not, however, suddenly everywhere, in everything.
“I was always very selective,” Wilder said of his movie choices. “No, selective isn’t the right word.”
“Egomaniacal,” he decided, was what he was looking for.
For the choosy Wilder, Willy Wonka, a musical rendering of the Roald Dahl children’s book about greed, chocolate and one good kid, was just his fifth film. At the time of its release, in 1971, and for a few years after, it was portrayed as a flop because, box-office-wise, it was. For a time, even Wilder spoke of Willy Wonka as being one of the films that “ended” the first part of his movie career.
“I started all over again with Woody Allen in Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex,” Wilder said in 1976.
True enough, Wilder was a comic star anew for playing a doctor who falls in love with a sheep in Allen’s anthology. Then he reteamed with Brooks for Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, both released in 1974, and he was a comic superstar.
While Brooks wrote and directed the Old West spoof Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein was Wilder’s baby. He started with the title, and worked it into a full-blown, homage/parody of the black-and-white Universal horror classics. Brooks would end up directing that movie, too, as well as rewriting the script with Wilder.
“While we were making Blazing Saddles, we worked on the second draft of Young Frankenstein,” Wilder recalled.
Wilder and Brooks never collaborated in any significant way after Young Frankenstein. There was no falling out; there were just different styles.
“Our ideas of comedy are quite different,” Wilder told UPI in 1977. “Mel likes the fall-down stuff. I favor romantic humor.”
Wilder began directing himself, in 1975’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, and 1977’s The World’s Greatest Lover, and found a new comedy partner in Pryor, starting with the 1976 heist comedy, Silver Streak.
“At the end of a take,” Wilder recounted to the New York Daily News of his first day shooting with Pryor, “we burst into the same song at the same time. … From then on, we began trusting each other in a way I haven’t experienced with any actor.”
Silver Streak was a hit, as was the prison-set, Sidney Poitier-directed Stir Crazy, released in 1980, months after Pryor’s life- and career-changing self-immolation suicide attempt.
It would be almost a decade before Wilder and Pryor teamed again, in 1989’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil. In the interim, Wilder had acquired another screen partner: Radner.
The two met on the 1982 crime comedy, Hanky Panky, also directed by Poitier. Wilder and Radner married in 1984, and went onto work together in 1984’s The Woman in Red and 1986’s Haunted Honeymoon, both directed by Wilder.
Then Radner began to not feel right — it would take doctors months to deliver the grim diagnosis: stage 4 ovarian cancer. For nearly three years, until her death at age 42 in 1989, Radner was in and out of treatment, and in and out of hospitals. “Gilda went through the tortures of the damned and at the end, I felt robbed,” Wilder told People in 1991. “All along I kept hearing Gilda saying, ‘Don’t just sit there, dummy, do something!'”
Wilder would go onto testify before Congress about the importance of screenings and knowledge of family health history and cofound Gilda’s Club, a cancer-support organization that started (and remains) in New York City and spawned numerous chapters.
Wilder, who was married and divorced twice before his union to Radner, wed Webb, a hearing specialist he’d worked with on Hear No Evil, See No Evil, in 1991.
Wilder would work in only a handful more TV and film projects, including one last comedy with Pryor, 1991’s Another You. The movie was panned, and, worse, showed Pryor in marked physical decline from the multiple sclerosis that would claim him in 2005.
In 1999, Wilder was diagnosed with lymphoma, but by the time he went public with his health, in 2000, he was already said to be in remission.
Wilder began a low-key retirement after winning a Primetime Emmy for a 2003 guest-starring turn on TV’s Will & Grace.
Away from Hollywood, Wilder said he enjoyed his life, his wife, his writing and no longer having to deal with the business of show business.
Along the way, Wilder’s old flop, Willy Wonka, became considered a children’s fantasy classic. The 2005 Johnny Depp-Tim Burton take, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, of which Wilder was famously no fan, only served to make the older version ever more relevant.
In the end, Wilder, who could do panic like few others on screen, sounded serene.
“I’ve become pretty philosophical about a lot of things, including death. It doesn’t get to me,” Wilder told London’s Telegraph in 2005. “At this point, the way I feel, if it’s over, it’s over.”