June 11, 1933– Gene Wilder:
“Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple”
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 ill, I probably watched over 500 movies.
I had not seen Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde (1967) since its first run in theatres and I was surprised at what a great film it was. Its violence was shocking at the time with all that graphic killing, but I had not remembered 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 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 theater and fencing at the Old Vic in England. After serving in the US Army for two years, Wilder moved to NYC, 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.
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 a character in a Thomas Wolfe novel, 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 besties. For years, Brooks had been tinkering with a bizarre and unconventional idea about doing a musical comedy of 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.
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971) was not a flop. It successfully brought to life the weird, wild children’s book by Roald Dahl and it thoroughly established Wilder as a brilliant comic leading man. As the enigmatic Willy Wonka, Wilder really chewed some scenery. He received a Golden Globe Award nomination for best actor and was adored by young film fans.
But offers were few. 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 was a western like no other. It probably could never be made today. 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 Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and he played The Fox in a musical adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. He played the title role and co-wrote with Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, my favorite comic film. Like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein was designed to lampoon a genre, this time Horror films. It is a nearly perfect film, 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 fun films: Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991). 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 comics 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 cancer patients.
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 now he says he has given up on show business: “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 now lives in Connecticut where he continues to write. He has published two novels and a collection of short stories. There must be something about living through Non-Hodgkin 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 is a lifelong supporter of the Democratic Party. 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.”
Wilder remains a personal acting and writing idol for me. And then there is that whole cancer thing that we shared. There are now Gilda’s Club chapters across North America.