June 11, 1933– Gene Wilder:
Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple.
His passing left me impossibly sad. Wilder was much loved, not just by me and my circle, but by film fans, young and old, all around our pretty planet.
In 2014, I was in treatment for Stage-4 Cancer and I didn’t much feel like doing any of the things that I love most: reading, writing, walking, eating, drinking, masturbating, but I did watch hours and hours of programming via Turner Classic Movies, the default channel on my television set. I caught many films, some much loved, and many that I had not seen in decades. While I was in treatment, I probably watched over 500 movies.
I had not seen Arthur Penn‘s Bonnie And Clyde (1967) since its first run in the theatres, and I was surprised at what a really great film it is. Its violence was shocking when I first saw it in its original run, with all that graphic killing. It’s shocking still. What I had not remembered was that it was the beginning of Gene Wilder’s film career. His small, but memorable role, was so “out there” and original, how had this escaped my orbit, especially when Wilder has long been a favorite actor for me?
Wilder’s wild, wacky performances in films like Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971), and the double whammy of Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974) make him a truly unforgettable Comedy Icon.
Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee to a Jewish family. His father had emigrated from Russia. His mother was very ill from Rheumatic Fever, and her doctor warned little 8-year-old Wilder: “Don’t ever argue with your mother, you might kill her. Try to make her laugh’.
After high school, Wilder studied Theatre at the University Of Iowa, with a year studying acting and fencing at the Old Vic in England. After serving in the U.S. Army for two years, Wilder moved to New York City, where he took odd jobs, including working as a fencing teacher, to support himself while he studied acting and how to make his mother laugh. He studied at HB Studios, where I also took classes many years later.
Wilder decided that he “couldn’t quite see a marquee reading ‘Jerome Silberman’ as Macbeth’ and he made up a stage name, Gene Wilder. He took his new first name from the main character in Thomas Wolfe‘s novel Look Homeward, Angel, and his last name from the gay playwright Thornton Wilder.
Wilder found work in Off-Broadway and Broadway plays. In 1963, he appeared in Bertolt Brecht‘s Mother Courage And Her Children starring Anne Bancroft, who introduced him to her cute boyfriend, Mel Brooks. Wilder and Brooks became best buds. For years, Brooks had been tinkering with a bizarre and unconventional idea about doing a musical comedy about Adolf Hitler, and he wanted to cast Wilder in what would become The Producers, his first screenplay.
Wilder got that role in The Producers (1968) playing Leo Bloom opposite Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock. It proved to be a box-office flop with decidedly mixed reviews. But, Wilder received an Academy Award nomination. He was suddenly hot in Hollywood. The film became a cult classic.
But, offers were still few. Studios didn’t really know what to do with him. He did a bit in Woody Allen‘s Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask (1972). As a last-minute replacement for Gig Young who was too drunk to perform, Wilder returned to Brooks’ direction in Blazing Saddles (1974) a stroke of luck that defined his career.
Blazing Saddles is a western like no other. It probably could never be made in today’s PC America. Brooks decided to be an equal opportunity offender, and the profane, demented film became a cult classic. The film premiered at the Pickwick Drive-In Theater in Burbank. Wilder and co-star Cleavon Little rode horses to the gala opening, and watched the film on horseback.
1974 was a particularly full year for Wilder. He reunited with Mostel for a film adaptation of Eugene Ionesco‘s surrealistic classic Rhinoceros, and he played The Fox in a musical adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry‘s The Little Prince for Stanley Donen. He played the title role and co-wrote, with Brooks, Young Frankenstein, my favorite comic film of all time.
Like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein was designed to lampoon a genre, this time Horror films. For me, it is a nearly perfect movie, unrelenting in its jokes and sight gags. Wilder’s co-stars matched his comic genius: Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn and Peter Boyle as the monster.
Wilder wrote, directed and starred in the silly The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975) and the Rudolph Valentino spoof The World’s Greatest Lover (1977). Young Frankenstein was a hit and still has a huge cult following, but the other films failed with the critics and at the box-office.
Yet, Wilder continued to do great work for the next decade. He became half of a comedy team with his friend Richard Pryor (he was the original choice for Blazing Saddles and received screenplay credit) in four films: Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991), all of them fun. They all made money and Wilder was noted for his original deft comic touch.
In 1981, Wilder was cast opposite Saturday Night Live‘s Gilda Radner in the fluffy Hanky Panky, directed by Sidney Poitier. Although they were both married at the time, Radner and Wilder fell in love on the set. The cutest couple ever, they married in 1984. The two brilliant comic actors had obvious affection for each other on screen and off. While trying to become pregnant, Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and sadly she left this world in 1989. To honor her memory, Wilder started Gilda’s Club, a support group for people with cancer.
By the 1990s, with a string of flops and a quickly canceled television series, Wilder retired from show business. In 1999, he announced that he had been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, the same kind of cancer that I was in treatment for when I watched him in Bonnie and Clyde. After his treatment, Wilder appeared as a guest star on Will And Grace in 2002 and 2003. But after that, he really did give up the biz:
I like show, but I don’t like the business.
In 2005, he published a well written, witty, but rather heartbreaking memoir, Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search For Love And Art. He really took to writing and published two novels and a collection of short stories. There must be something about living through Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma that makes a curly haired guy want to give up acting for writing. Wilder:
I’m not a natural writer. I’m not Arthur Miller, that’s a whole other thing, but let’s say more like Woody Allen. But the more I’ve written, the more I’ve found that there is a deep well in me somewhere that wants to express things that I’m not going to find unless I write them myself.
Wilder was a lifelong supporter of the Democratic Party and progressive causes. He staunchly opposed the Vietnam War and the Iraq War.
I’m quietly political. I don’t like advertising. I will give money to someone I support, but I am not getting on a bandstand. I don’t want to run for President. I will write another book instead.
While preparing for his role as a deaf man in See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Wilder met Karen Webb of the New York League For The Hard Of Hearing, who coached him in lip reading. After Radner’s passing, Wilder and Webb reconnected, and in 1991, they married. They lived in the 1734 Colonial home that he had shared with Radner. I always felt bad for Wilder’s widow after he left this world. She was with him longer than Radner, but when he passed, social media was all abuzz about how Radner and Wilder were reunited at last.
He was taken by Alzheimer’s disease at his home. According to his family, Wilder died while listening to Over The Rainbow sung by Ella Fitzgerald.
What do actors really want? To be great actors? Yes, but you can’t buy talent, so it’s best to leave the word ‘great’ out of it. I think to be believed, onstage or onscreen, is the one hope that all actors share.
Wilder is still missed. He remains a personal acting and writing idol for me. And, there is that whole cancer thing that we shared. There are now Gilda’s Club chapters across North America.