Gene Wilder (11 June 1933 – 29 August 2016)
Often wild of eye and generous of grin (and self-confessed Jewish-Buddhist-Atheist), Gene Wilder was an actor who was recruited into comedy by Mel Brooks – and thank Mel for that! It could all have been so different, though. Wilder’s career began in the late Fifties. He trained with Uta Hagen at the HB Studio before being accepted into the Actors’ Studio and taking private classes with Lee Strasberg. In the early to mid-Sixties, Wilder began to make a name for himself in various stage productions, until a production of Mother Courage and Her Children introduced him to Anne Bancroft, who in turn introduced him to her husband, Mel Brooks.
Having regarded himself as a serious, dramatic actor, Wilder acclimated quickly to comedy, and this despite making his feature debut in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Aside from a handful of TV movies, Wilder didn’t stray from comedy for the rest of his career. But in doing so he provided us with so many wonderful, comic performances that if there had been any more diversions from comedy, it would have seemed like a betrayal.
He was well-known for his work with Brooks (five movies), and Richard Pryor (four movies). These collaborations cemented his fame and fortune, and brought him critical as well as commercial success. During the Seventies, Wilder made a string of movies that traded well on his ability to portray an unhinged loon with complete credibility. No matter what the scenario, Wilder’s high-pitched, hysterical expressions of incredulity were always funny to watch, even with repeated viewings.
Following his retirement from movies in 2003, Wilder decided to concentrate on writing, publishing a memoir as well as several novels and a collection of short stories. His philosophy was simple: “I’d rather be at home with my wife. I can write, take a break, come out, have a glass of tea, give my wife a kiss, and go back in and write some more. It’s not so bad. I am really lucky.” And so are we, to have such an enduring legacy of movies to enjoy for generations to come.
1 – The Producers (1967)
2 – Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970)
3 – Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
4 – Blazing Saddles (1974)
5 – Young Frankenstein (1974)
6 – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975)
7 – Silver Streak (1976)
8 – Stir Crazy (1980)
9 – The Woman in Red (1984)
10 – See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989)