Goodbye to Gene Wilder

September 2, 2016

Gene Wilder died earlier this week at home in Stamford, Connecticut at the age of 83 due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. The beloved comic actor, screenwriter, film director, and author created many loyal fans over the decades who are now fondly revisiting his playful and distinctive body of work.

Wilder’s acting career was rooted in theater. And it was a theater connection (his co-star Anne Bancroft) who introduced the budding actor to her boyfriend, the comedy writer Mel Brooks. Three years later, Brooks gave Wilder the role of Leopold Bloom in The Producers–a role that Gene was later nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Despite the film being a flop, it would go on to be considered a cult comedy classic. Wilder and Brooks continued to work together in the comic movies Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. The two men co-wrote Young Frankenstein which proved to be a box-office hit, and they received Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Later, Wilder paired up with comedian and actor Richard Pryor in four films including Silver StreakStir CrazySee No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Another You. The two actors have been described as Hollywood’s first successful interracial comedy duo in the movies. The international hit Stir Crazy was directed by Sidney Poitier; he described the comic rapport of Wilder and Pryor this way: “For some reason when you pair [Pryor] with Gene Wilder, they make a particular kind of magic together. And, together, they are probably the funniest pair that’s ever been on screen.”

Wilder also acted in three movies with Saturday Night Live funny woman Gilda Radner including Woman In Red which Wilder both wrote and directed. The comic duo eventually married; however, their time was cut short when Gilda sadly died from ovarian cancer.

But perhaps Wilder is best known for his phenomenal portrayal of Willy Wonka in the 1971 version of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. While the film was considered a box-office failure, and received generally tepid reviews, it became a cherished classic childhood movie to later audiences. Wilder once described his candy-making character as “part of this world, part of another…mysterious, yet undefined.”

Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie Buckett in the film was deeply saddened at the news of Wilder’s death. Both he and Wilder had formed a strong bond on set. “It’s kind of like losing a parent,” Ostrum recently told Variety. After lunch breaks while shooting the film, Gene and Peter made it a habit to walk back to set together while sharing a chocolate bar.

Ostrum continued, “You know it’s going to happen, but it’s still a shock…He was a gentle man, but he was also a gentleman. He treated people with respect and dignity.” The young Ostrum was struck by the creative risks Wilder took on set including Willy Wonka’s grand entrance. None of the actors had any idea that Wilder was planning to reveal himself in such an unpredictable manner.

This dramatic entry is highly memorable fan-favorite part of the film. And yet it almost never happened. According to the film’s director, Mel Stuart, Gene only accepted the role of Willy on one condition:

“When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself; but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”

When the director asked why, Gene answered, “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

“He was quirky. You never knew what to expect from Gene,” Ostrum remembers. “He never let on how he was going to read a line or convey an expression. That’s why the film works, because he made Wonka so unpredictable.”

Wilder once revealed his approach to comedy: “Doing something funny realistically is going to be much funnier than if you told a silly joke.”

And what inspired him to want to make others laugh? When Gene was eight years old, his mother was diagnosed with rheumatic fever. The doctor, in turn, advised the young boy to “try and make her laugh.” Gene took an interest in acting from that point forward. And thankfully he continued to make so many others laugh for all these years–as well as for years to come.