With a career spanning over four decades, comedic actor Gene Wilder passed away at his home in Connecticut on Sunday, from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease at age 83. He successfully battled cancer over 16 years ago, using then highly-controversial stem cell therapy, paving the way for its use in current day treatment regimes.
Born to Russian Jewish parents in WI in 1933, his given name was Jerome Silberman, later adopting the stage name “Wilder” in homage to the author of the play Our Town, the famed Thornton Wilder. After graduating from Washington High School in Milwaukee, WI, the fledgling actor attended the University of Iowa, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1955.
From there, he went on to do a two-year hitch in Uncle Sam’s Army, working as a medic at the Valley Forge General Hospital in PA for the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology, primarily seeing soldiers with what is now widely known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, previously termed as “combat fatigue” or “shell shock.”
Following his discharge, he kicked around in off-Broadway productions, until one time he encountered actress Anne Bancroft, later wife of writer and director Mel Brooks, and with that introduction, an amazing relationship was born. His first Hollywood role was a small part in the movie Bonnie and Clyde and from there the rest, as they say, is cinematic history.
15. Eugene Grizzard, “Bonnie and Clyde” 1967
In his first Hollywood role, Wilder plays a bit part as a young undertaker, who is taken hostage by the notorious duo. Although he and his girlfriend, actress Evans Evans (wife of director John Frankenheimer) are being held by the desperate couple “on the lam” from the law, they actually get to enjoy part of a meal in the getaway car. But, when the wrong thing is said, instead of shooting their abductees, Bonnie (played by Faye Dunaway) and Clyde (portrayed by Warren Beatty) settle on fate for the young bewildered couple…being dropped off on the side of a deserted country road. From there, Wilder moved on to bigger and better roles that he would be remembered for.
14. Dr. Doug Ross “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, but Were Afraid to Ask” 1972
From the neurotic mind of writer/director Woody Allen, the so-called adaptation of Dr. David Reuben’s best seller features 7 vignettes, one of which featured a cultured character played by Wilder. In a segment titled “What is Sodomy?” Dr. Doug Ross (a character name later lifted and made famous by George Clooney’s in TV’s ER ) finds himself emotionally bonding with a sheep from Armenia. Though not a starring role, his portrayal of the slightly confused shrink was regarded by critics as “absurd and bizarrely touching.” When caught in bed with Daisy, he explains to his shocked wife “This is Mrs. Bencours, one of my patients, she thinks she’s a sheep.”
13. George/Abe Fielding “Another You” 1991
In what would be his last major motion picture and his fourth project with renowned comedian and writer Richard Pryor, Wilder takes on a familiar role as a mental patient recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital. In formulaic style, the two pair up, as Wilder is passed off by professional con man Pryor as a missing millionaire (allegedly) leading them on an adventure filled with lies, love and eventually happiness.
Audiences were largely disappointed with the effort, judging it against the previous three comedies the pair starred in. But, it was after Pryor suffered health issues and the effects of his MS condition were at times visible, leading many to think this was “one too many” for the two.
12. Michael Jordan “Hanky Panky” 1982
Featuring Wilder’s then-wife Gilda Radner, of Saturday Night Live fame in her own right, the couple’s first on-screen appearance had them frolicking through a halfhearted suspense/comedy set in New York City. Wilder plays the role of an architect, who inadvertently finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy to kill the National Security Director after a chance rendezvous leaves him with a package to deliver and a dead stranger who asked him to make the delivery.
Directed by Hollywood legend Sidney Poitier, this farce had high expectations based on the stars, however, it was a bomb at the box office. The couple did go on to appear in a later film which did somewhat better, but never quite met the expectations set by the talented pair.
11. Dave Lyons “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” 1989
Before finding stardom, Kevin Spacey plays the role of bad guy in pursuit of a deaf and blind duo who possess a rare coin with a microchip hidden inside. That pretty much sums up this third movie with Wilder and Richard Pryor, where the pair once again buddy up with a twist; Wilder’s character is deaf and Pryor’s is blind, and the two are accused of a murder that they didn’t commit, but witnessed with their intact senses. Some of the gags may now be considered non-PC, offensive to the visual and hearing impaired populations, but overall it had some funny twists and turns, as the guys try to clear their names and find who tried to frame them for the crime.
10. Sigerson Holmes “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” 1975
Clever plot twists and some unique site gags made this a memorable film and garnered a bit of critical acclaim, marking Wilder’s first foray into writing and directing a feature length project. It also marks the second time he and co-stars Madeline Kahn and Mary Feldman would team up, previously appearing together in the box office smash Young Frankenstein a year earlier, another Mel Brooks collaboration with Wilder in the lead role.
Here, getting “thrown a bone” of a case from brother Sherlock, Sigerson is soon immersed in a battle with Sherlock’s arch enemy, the evil Dr. Moriarty, and has to be rescued by his famous brother. Wilder was at his box office peak when this was released, leading to other successful projects the next few years.
9. Larry Abbot “Haunted Honeymoon” 1986
Four years removed from their first picture together, Wilder and wife Gilda Radner play a soon-to-be-married couple in the early 20th century, when radio was king among the media, and the two are stars in the business. After their engagement and return to Larry’s childhood home, an old and imposing castle, the hijinks begin.
Also featured is pal Dom DeLuise, who helps to bring a slapstick and silly feel to the plot by appearing in drag as Wilder’s aunt and matriarch of the property. Once again, Wilder did the writing, directing and acting in this offering, which has the feel of an old “Abbot and Costello” vehicle from years past.
8. Rabbi Avram “The Frisco Kid” 1979
Box office draw Harrison Ford, not far removed from his breakout role as Han Solo in Star Wars, co-stars with Wilder, who plays a Polish Rabbi traveling across the American West to San Francisco, to take over a synagogue. The “wet behind the ears” holy man finds life in “the old west” less than “kosher” and is taken under Ford’s wing, where he learns the ropes from the outlaw.
Many heralded the character as a departure from stereotypical Jews, with Wilder showing he may get captured by Indians and covered from head to toe in prairie dirt, but he still keeps his dignity and faith, despite the challenges his new world poses. The contrasts between cultures makes this “buddy pick” work.
7. George Caldwell “Silver Streak” 1976
In his first film opposite comedy star Richard Pryor, Wilder is caught up in an action/suspense/comedy where he is on a train and thinks he witnessed a murder. Throughout his investigating, he ultimately winds up with the real killer on his trail during the long rail journey from Los Angeles to Chicago. At one point, he meets up with Pryor, ending the movie in a classic disaster style bang up involving the train wrecking at the station.
The movie was an absolute success at the box office, and it marked the first of four films the duo would star in. The two had met previously while on the set of Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles starring Wilder and co-written by Pryor.
6. Skip Donahue “Stir Crazy” 1980
Before 1982’s Hanky Panky, renowned Hollywood fixture Sidney Poitier directed this vehicle first, featuring the successful combination of Wilder and Pryor, following the amazing hit the pair starred in four years earlier, Silver Streak.
In this film, once again wrongly accused buddies are framed after being arrested for a crime while trying to earn a living in giant chicken suits to promote a local restaurant. The climax features a hilarious prison rodeo, where the two break out of and get to clear their names, with a raucous escape full of belly laughs and horse riding antics.
5. Leo Bloom “The Producers” 1967
Later that same year, he and Mel Brooks collaborated for the first time in the mad-cap, irreverent movie where Wilder plays the accountant for a down and out theatrical producer. The two realize while going over the books they can make more money from the insurance if the production flops than if it’s a hit, so in order to sink the project, they conceive of the devilishly hilarious musical Spring Time for Hitler. But, much to their chagrin, it not only isn’t panned by the audience on opening night as hoped, they find they have a comedy hit on their hands, ruining their plans to bank on the failure and stand now to lose more than gain financially. Featuring some of Brooks’ biting and dark humor, Wilder garnered a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Academy Awards committee.
4. Teddy Pierce “The Woman in Red” 1984
In one of the 80s’ great romantic comedies, Wilder finds himself a middle aged husband, mundane lifestyle, until one day he sees an amazingly beautiful woman dressed in red, standing over an air vent, a’la Marilyn Monroe, and becomes instantly obsessed with having to meet her.
The comedy co-stars international fashion model Kelly LeBrock, whose sex appeal as the title character nearly drips off the screen at some points. Wilder’s real life wife, Gilda Radner, has a small role in this production, which audiences flocked to the theaters to see. This was one of Wilder’s most memorable and successful undertakings in a long and amazing career.
3. Dr. Fredrick Frankenstein “Young Frankenstein” 1974
Considered by many to be the best collaboration between Wilder and writer/director Mel Brooks, this take on the horror film genre filmed entirely in black and white solidified Wilder as a comedic force.
Along with his friends and cohorts from a previous movie, Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn, Wilder first denies his roots as an heir to his infamous Frankenstein heritage, but, when he gets a taste of “playing God” he converts and embraces his place and vows to carry on the research of reviving the dead, but with hilarious not frightening consequences.
2. Jim AKA The Waco Kid “Blazing Saddles” 1974
This film was the first time Wilder worked on a movie with co-writer Richard Pryor on this Mel Brooks classic. In a biting send up of Westerns, racial prejudice and redemption, Wilder plays second banana to Cleavon Little’s standout performance as the first Black sheriff of Rock Ridge, where Wilder is jailed as the town drunk.
Facing bigotry from the all White towns folk, who all share the last name Johnson, Little overcomes the blind hatred with Wilder the only person in the town not judging, but counseling and aiding the new sheriff.
In the end, he wins over the town by defeating the evil railroad barons and bringing together Blacks, Whites, Chinese and even “The Irish.” To this day, the nakedly funny portrayal of hatred demonstrated in a comedic way serves as a lesson that we can all get along. It moved Wilder up to star status where he stayed for years.
1. Willy Wonka “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” 1971
Despite being upstaged in a lot of moviegoers’ memories by short, orange colored creatures called “Oompa Loompas,” Wilder established himself firmly as a force on the screen, albeit in a quite manner, as Roald Dahl’s affable but mysterious candy company owner Willy Wonka.
In this family classic, Wilder plays the reclusive Wonka, who invites a handful of children to tour his magical and secretive convection operation, featuring whimsical characters and Wilder’s lilting voice singing “Pure Imagination,” the underlying theme of Dahl’s story.
Even after 45 years, like The Wizard of Oz, this movie remains a favorite of generations, and solidifies Wilder forever as a daffy, lovable enigma-both on and off the screen.