Gene Wilder, the wonderfully witty actor who shined in several Mel Brooks films and captivated children of all ages as Willy Wonka, has died from complications with Alzheimer’s. Wilder was 83.
Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wilder took his stage name as a young adult, although he showed interest in acting as a child in Wisconsin. His mother sent him to a private military academy in Hollywood. After graduating with a communication and theater degree from the University of Iowa, Wilder studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in England, returning less than a year later to study acting in New York City.
The U.S. Army drafted Wilder in 1956, but his assignment with the medical corps after training allowed him to pick a paramedic post in Pennsylvania — close enough for him to resume acting classes in NYC. Fellow future comic acting legend Charles Grodin convinced Wilder to begin studying with Lee Strasberg, and Wilder entered the Actors Studio, whereupon he adopted Wilder as a last name from the author of “Our Town” and the first name Gene from a Thomas Wolfe novel.
A role onstage with Anne Bancroft in 1963 led Wilder to Bancroft’s beau, Mel Brooks.
Thus began the first of three hugely successful and influential pairings.
With Brooks, Wilder starred in The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Richard Pryor wrote on Blazing Saddles, and with Wilder formed a comedic duo onscreen in Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. And with his third wife, Gilda Radner, Wilder starred in Hanky Panky, The Woman in Red, and Haunted Honeymoon.
Here’s a supercut of Wilder going wild…
And, of course, there was Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory.
I could go on and on about how much Wilder has influenced me. I often impersonated his Wonka while working the glass elevator at the Space Needle in Seattle just to see which tourists were paying attention. But that’s for another time. For now, I simply say, good day, sir. I said, “Good day, sir!”
Mel Brooks, upon hearing the news, called 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.” Or you could just leap back in time to Brooks accepting his Academy Award for best screenplay for The Producers, and his closing words. “I’d also like to thank Gene Wilder. I’d also like to thank Gene Wilder. I’d also like to thank Gene Wilder.”
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.
— Mel Brooks (@MelBrooks) August 29, 2016
As he said then: “What a comic, what a funny guy — all that stuff. And I’m not. I’m really not. Except in a comedy, in films. But, I make my wife laugh once or twice in the house. But nothing special. But when people see me in the movie, and if it’s funny, they stop and say things to me about how funny you are. But. I don’t think I’m that funny. I think I can be in the movies.”
I’ll let him have the last words and then some. Rest in peace, Gene Wilder. You shall be missed, but your onscreen achievements forever celebrated.