“I’m funny on camera sometimes. In life, once in a while. Once in a while.” – Gene Wilder
Gene Wilder considered himself as a dramatic actor. His early career and accolades began on stage in theatre productions of Twelfth Night, The Complacent Lover and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest opposite Kirk Douglas. Yet comedy came naturally to him, mastering the art of comedic timing and thoughtful expression.
Born 11th June 1933 as Jerome Silberman, Wilder’s first break was a minor role in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. Playing the young, frightened undertaker abducted by the legendary duo, Wilder’s blank stares and nervous laughter encapsulated a memorable performance. But it was 1968 when Wilder landed his first leading role, starring in Mother Courage and Her Children, a stage play which happened to feature Mel Brooks’ girlfriend of the time.
Brooks singled out Wilder as the perfect candidate to play Leo Bloom in The Producers, a role which earned Wilder a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy Awards. Their friendship became a fruitful partnership, re-teaming on Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, which of course is being re-released just this week and has never entirely left the cinematic consciousness.
While commercial success didn’t come easy following his work on The Producers, that changed when Woody Allen cast him in Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask). It became the 13th highest grossing film of 1972 with over $18 million made at the US box office.
Wilder was more than just an actor. Through writing, he creatively opened doors to experiment and explore. Young Frankenstein secured him another Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay alongside Mel Brooks, losing out to Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo for The Godfather Part II. Buoyed by the success, the idea of a romantic musical comedy set in motion the creation of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother which became his directorial debut.
Wilder’s work with comedian Richard Pryor broke new ground challenging stereotypes and misconceptions. Their work on Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You cemented their status as Hollywood’s first successful interracial comedy duo. Undoubtedly Gene Wilder’s most recognisable and popular role, however, was Willy Wonka, the eccentric, dark humoured and inventive chocolate factory owner from Roald Dahl’s brilliant children’s book.
Devising a clever competition to find golden tickets in Wonka bars, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was a job interview for kids, finding a successor to Wonka’s work being the ultimate prize. It was Wilder’s childlike appeal that was sentimentally endearing, enabling the audience to dream and believe in the impossible. He was the magician and every trick he performed we were there for the ride. That magical influence certainly had an impact on writer Ernest Cline. His book Ready Player One echoes the familiar tones of Willy Wonka and in 2018 we’ll see that book come to life in its big screen adaptation. Rumour has it Wilder was even in consideration for a role.
Gene Wilder sadly passed away in 2016 due to complications with Alzheimer’s disease but as a legacy, his creativity was boundless. He hated showbusiness but he loved the show finding innovative ways to connect with his audience through his writing, painting and charity work. The cinematic landscape may have changed but Gene Wilder’s work dared us to dream big in a world of pure imagination.
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