There’s nothing like the death of a funny person to make us all sad. Looking at social media today, the world is taking the death of Gene Wilder at 83 very hard, and that’s even considering he hadn’t acted for more than twenty years, and the greatness of his career was really only confined to about fifteen years. But what a fifteen years.
Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wilder (he took his last name from playwright Thornton Wilder) made a memorable debut in small part in Bonnie and Clyde. He is a rich kid kidnapped by the bank robbers, and his performance as a highly excitable person sort of established his persona as a man who thought he was in control, but was often in the grip of terrible anxiety.
Like many of my age, I grew up on Wilder. First was The Producers, for which he garnered his only Oscar nomination for acting. Leo Bloom was his most nebbish-y role, a man who memorably screamed, “I’m in pain, I’m wet, and I’m hysterical!” The film united him with Mel Brooks, and the two would make a memorable partnership. leading to Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, which incredibly were released in the same calendar year.
The Producers is a comic classic that starts out big, as the long scene between Wilder and Zero Mostel in the opening of the film is comedy gold. From Wilder’s security blanket to his falling on his keys to the hatching of the plot, this self-contained scene is so good that it’s almost criminal, and while Mostel blusters, Wilder parries with skill, not shying away from Mostel’s cured ham.
Before the double-event with Brooks, Wilder made what his perhaps his most famous film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I saw it when I was twelve, pretty much a perfect age for it, and was enchanted. I liked the Tim Burton version a lot, too, so I can’t authoritatively say that one is better than the other, but Wilder makes for a much different Wonka. While Depp played a man-child, Wilder is definitely an adult, but an adult who seems to take some delight in the demise of ill-behaved children (unlike the Burton version, we assume the malefactors in Willy Wonka have gone to their doom).
The story about Blazing Saddles is that Wilder agreed to the role as the Waco Kid, which was subdued for a Wilder role, in order to get Brooks to direct Young Frankenstein, and not act in it. Young Frankenstein was Wilder’s idea, and he wrote most of the script (he and Brooks were credited and won an Oscar nomination). I’ve written about the film before, and it’s just about a perfect comedy. All over Facebook today people were quoting the lines, from “Sed-a-give?” to “Put the candle back.” But what I appreciated about Wilder in the film is that he held nothing back. It was an homage to the Universal horror films, and Wilder acted in that style–his “Life! I’ve created life!” almost puts Colin Clive to shame.
Unfortunately, Wilder was not a great director. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother delighted me when I was 15–I saw it twice, but while it has moments that hold up it’s a little too silly. The World’s Greatest Lover and The Frisco Kid were also misfires. But, fortunately, during this time, he forge a partnership with Richard Pryor. Silver Streak (ironically, it’s director Arthur Hiller just passed) is an under-rated gem. I haven’t seen it in years but I still remember, every time Wilder was thrown from the train, his anguished “Son of a bitch!”
He made two more films with Pryor, the popular Stir Crazy, and then one of the last films for both men, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, which very few people saw. He had a romance with Gilda Radner that produced a few films that I didn’t see and didn’t get good marks–Hanky Panky, Haunted Honeymoon, and The Women in Red, The latter is mostly known for the Stevie Wonder song, “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”
Radner died in 1989 and Wilder worked very little after that, devoting his time to cancer-related charities. I remember him being visible when Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came out, asked to compare himself to Johnny Depp. But Wilder wouldn’t take the bait–he was a kind man (there are numerous anecdotes about his kindness to fans) and then that’s about the last I ever saw him. He was passed over many times for a Lifetime Achievement Oscar.
Wilder never really acted a dramatic part, but he was an actor. Though he may have often looked the part of the clown, he was not a buffoon on film, but instead a man who simply played the truth. Many have offered their favorite moment of his acting, but to me, if you want to see great acting, watch the scene in Young Frankenstein when he’s locked in the room with the Monster and tells his friends not to let him out, “no matter how cruelly I beg.” Of course he immediately goes back on that, and ends up screaming “Mommy!” But then, in an additional turn, he realizes he has to stay in there and manages to charm the Monster. “You’re a mother’s angel,” he tells the crying creature. That’s some range of acting in one short scene.
Gene Wilder was one of our greatest comic actors, perhaps the best of the post-War era. The only actor I can think of that rivals him is Bill Murray, who is an entirely different kind of actor. Wilder was one of a kind.