The singular comic star, who has died at the age of 83, cooked up a quartet of indelible neurotics which belied great intelligence and whose genius may not yet have been fully appreciated
Monday 29 August 2016
Gene Wilder was a smart, industrious and often very funny actor and writer who earned a slow-burn cult status as the weirdo chocolate mogul Willy Wonka in the Roald Dahl adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971).
His sharp, handsome face with intense blue eyes became more cartoon-like as he got older and he had a regular paycheck by teaming up with Richard Pryor in broad comedies like Silver Streak and Stir Crazy — a double-act which perhaps showed neither to his full potential. He also directed and adapted the 80s romantic comedy The Woman in Red, which got an Oscar for its hit Stevie Wonder tune, I Just Called To Say I Love You.
But his claim to fame lay in his partnership with his great comedy collaborator,Mel Brooks, effortlessly in tune with each other’s classic vein of American Jewish comedy. With Brooks he created three giant comic hits: The Producers (1967), Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974).
Gene Wilder plays Leo Bloom, the nerdy little accountant who comes to work for Max Bialystock, played by Zero Mostel, a failed Broadway producer. Out of pure academic interest, Bloom notes that if Bialystock can persuade enough of his little-old-lady backers to put in far more money than he needs, and the show is a spectacular flop, then he can keep all the excess cash and never be investigated by his notional investors or the tax authorities.
Bialystock of course declares the idea to be pure genius, and they hit on the idea of a Hitler musical which naturally becomes a hit. Gene Wilder’s face is perfect: seething and wincing and gibbering with nerves and excitement, especially when he was reduced to a cringing mess of anxiety by being deprived of his childhood “blue blanket”. Wilder was far better than Matthew Broderick in the stage show, who didn’t have half the neurotic rocket-fuel that Wilder brought to the role. (I think Simon Helberg’s nervy pianist in Florence Foster Jenkins took a little from Wilder’s Leo Bloom.)
In the raucous spoof western, Blazing Saddles, Wilder plays legendary gunfighter Jim, who teams up with a black sheriff called Bart, played by the distinguished Shakespearian actor Cleavon Little, although the part was originally penciled in for Richard Pryor: the Wilder/Pryor partnership would only come into being later. As ever, good deadpan stuff from Wilder who was however rather upstaged by the uproarious setpieces — like the deafening “fart” medley — and also the other cast members, including veteran players Slim Pickens and Harvey Korman as the horribly corrupt politician Hedley Lamarr.
Wilder probably came into his own more with Young Frankenstein which he fully co-wrote with Brooks and which he put his stamp on. He is Dr Frankenstein, a modern-day neurophysiologist, tormented by the memory of his notorious grandfather and by his sense of destiny. Again, he was in danger of being a straight-man to huge comedy turns like Marty Feldman as Igor and Peter Boyle as the monster, but Wilder’s strange beady-eyed, frizzy-haired intensity always allowed him to dominate each scene in exactly the right way. He really did look mad.
The late 60s and early 70s were Gene Wilder’s moment, and perhaps he never quite equalled it later. But with Leo Bloom, Willy Wonka, Jim and Dr Frankenstein is a glorious quartet of comic performances.
Gene Wilder, star of Willy Wonka and Mel Brooks comedies, dies aged 83
The actor, who starred in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Young Frankenstein, dies aged 83 from complications from Alzheimer’s, family says
Mazin Sidahmed and agencies
Tuesday 30 August 2016
Gene Wilder, the star of such comedy classics as The Producers and Blazing Saddles, has died. He was 83.
Wilder’s nephew said on Monday that the actor and writer died late on Sunday in Stamford, Connecticut, from complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
“It is with indescribable sadness and blues, but with spiritual gratitude for the life lived, that I announce the passing of husband, parent, and universal artist Gene Wilder,” Jordan Walker-Pearlman, Wilder’s nephew, said in a statement.
He added that Wilder was diagnosed with the disease three years ago but kept the condition private so as not to disappoint fans. “He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world,” Walker-Pearlman said.
The frizzy-haired actor was a master at playing panicked characters caught up in schemes that only director Mel Brooks could devise, whether reviving a monster in Young Frankenstein or bilking Broadway in The Producers.
But he also knew how to keep it cool as the boozy gunfighter in Blazing Saddles and as the charming candy man in the children’s favorite Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
It was for that role that he was most widely known, and Wilder’s face became synonymous with the character from the Roald Dahl novel.
Willy Wonka also earned him a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy. He was nominated for an Academy Award for the 1968 classic The Producers and also for his work on the script of Young Frankenstein in 1974.
Though they collaborated on film, Wilder and Brooks met through the theater. Wilder was in a play with Brooks’s then future wife, Anne Bancroft, who introduced the pair backstage in 1963.
He was close friends with Richard Pryor and their contrasting personas – Wilder uptight, Pryor loose – were ideal for comedy. They co-starred in four films: Silver Streak; Stir Crazy; See No Evil, Hear No Evil; and Another You, and created several memorable scenes, particularly when Pryor provided Wilder with directions on how to “act black” as they tried to avoid police in Silver Streak.
Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee on 11 June 1933. His father was a Russian emigre, his mother was of Polish descent. When he was six, Wilder’s mother had a heart attack that left her partially disabled. He soon began improvising comedy skits to entertain her.
He studied communication and theatre arts at the University of Iowa before moving to England, where he was trained with the Bristol Old Vic theatre school.
He changed his name after returning from serving in the military, where he worked at the psychiatric ward delivering electroshock therapy, according to the BBC.
Wilder got his start in film with a brief role in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde before his breakout part in The Producers the next year. Brooks’s first film, it revolved around the efforts of Wilder and Zero Mostel to create a Broadway flop as a financial scam. But their tasteless musical about the Nazis unfortunately proves a huge success.
He would go on to to play Doctor Ross, who has an affair with a sheep, in Woody Allen’s cult classic Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex.
Wilder was married four times. He met his third wife, Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner, when they co-starred in the 1982 film Hanky Panky. Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Following her death, Wilder founded the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles along with Gilda’s Club to raise awareness of the disease. Wilder went on to survive cancer himself, after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1999.
Wilder adopted the biological child of his second wife Mary Joan Schultz, Katherine, when the two were married in 1967. However, he became estranged from his daughter later in life. He told Larry King in 2002 that he had a daughter and “lost her a long while ago”.
He continued to act throughout the 1990s and 2000s, starring in an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and theatre shows. He was also the lead in a short-lived sitcom Something Wilder, from 1994 to 1996. He announced his retirement from acting after winning an Emmy for his guest role in Will & Grace in 2003.
He did not appreciate Warner Brothers’ remake of Willy Wonka in 2005, calling the Tim Burton-directed remake starring Johnny Depp “all about money”. “It’s just some people sitting around thinking: how can we make some more money? Why else would you remake Willy Wonka?” he told the Daily Telegraph in 2005.
Walker-Pearlman said Wilder died surrounded by his family at his home. He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Karen Wilder.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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.