Gene 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.
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) directed by Mel Stuart, an adaptation of the novel Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (1964) by Roald Dahl. Dahl is credited with the film’s screenplay; however, the uncredited David Seltzer re-worked the screenplay against Dahl’s wishes, making major changes to the ending and adding musical numbers causing Dahl to disown the film.
The film is about a boy, Charlie Bucket, who receives a Golden Ticket and a visit Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory with four other kids from around the world. It opened in theatres in June 1971. It was a modest hit in its original run, but a much-loved cult hit from repeated television broadcast and video sales.
The Academy Award-nominated original score and songs are by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. The film introduced the song The Candy Man, which went on to become a popular hit when recorded by Sammy Davis Jr. Davis disliked the song, yet it became his only Number One hit, spending five weeks at the top of the charts in summer 1972, and ranked as the Number Five song of 1972. Another song from the score, Pure Imagination was never released as a single, but has been covered by many artists, including Barbra Streisand, Mariah Carey, Maroon 5, and the psychedelic rock band Primus. Russell Brand performed the song at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
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, after a string of flops and a quickly canceled television series, Wilder retired from show business. In 1999, he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. After his treatment, Wilder appeared as a guest star on Will & Grace in 2002 and 2003. But after that, he really did give up showbiz:
”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 was a lifelong supporter of the Democratic Party and progressive causes. He staunchly opposed the Vietnam War and the Iraq War.
In 1989, 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”.
In August 2016, Wilder was taken by Alzheimer’s 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 missed. He remains a personal acting and writing idol for me. And, there is that whole Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma thing that we shared. There are now Gilda’s Club chapters across North America.
Today is Wilder’s 85th birthday.