Date of Birth: 11 June 1933, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.
Birth Name: Jerome Silberman
Nickname: Gene Wilder
With his wide, quizzical eyes, his shock of curly hair and puckish features, Gene Wilder was a totally original comic actor, whose classical training lent his performances a sometimes disconcerting depth and whimsical irony.
He first attracted major attention with a memorable cameo in the film Bonnie and Clyde, after which he was cast as the naive and gullible accountant in Mel Brooks’ classic comedy The Producers.
He went on to do some of his best work in further Brooks projects, including Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, and later he scored a personal success on the London stage in Neil Simon’s comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor. His private life in later years, though, was dogged by tragedy his wife Gilda Radner died of cancer in 1989, and last year Wilder was himself diagnosed with lymphatic cancer.
The son of an immigrant Russian who had prospered from the manufacture of miniature liqueur bottles, he was born Jerry Silberman in 1933 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A bug-eyed and curly-topped child, he found his appearance caused chuckles and decided the best response was to be deliberately funny.
At the University of Iowa he attended drama classes, and upon graduation he travelled to England and enrolled at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, where he won the school’s fencing championship. Returning to the United States, he taught fencing for a while, then worked as a chauffeur and toy salesman while studying at the Lee Strasberg Studio in New York.
Wilder gave one of his funniest screen performances in Bud Yorkin’s Start The Revolution Without Me (1970), a frequently hilarious farce on the twins-switched-at-birth theme and the first of several pastiche films made by Wilder, who had loved movies since his childhood and delighted in parodying the various genres. In Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974), every cliché of the western was mercilessly lampooned, and in Young Frankenstein (1974), developed by Brooks and Wilder from an idea by Wilder, it was the monster-horror genre, with its highlight a song-and-dance rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” performed by Frankenstein (Wilder) and his creation (Peter Boyle).
Taking inspiration from his mentor Brooks, Wilder himself wrote and directed a pastiche of detective movies, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975), with Wilder also playing the lead as the manically jealous sibling who is determined to outdo his famous brother in everything, from fencing and inventing to fiendishly clever detection. (Other Brooks alumni Madeline Kahn and Dom DeLuise were among his co-stars in this enormously popular spoof.) Wilder’s quirky personality also found apt outlets in Mel Stuart’s musical version of Roald Dahl’s children’s book Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) as the enigmatic and wickedly mischievous factory-owner, and Woody Allen’s Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask (1972).
He teamed up for the first time with the former night-club comic Richard Pryor (who had been one of the writers of Blazing Saddles) in Arthur Hiller’s Silver Streak (1976), an enjoyable comedy-thriller deliberately conceived in Hitchcock style by writer Colin Higgins, in which exhausted businessman Wilder finds mystery and murder on a cross-country train he has boarded hoping for relaxation. Wilder and Pryor complemented each other beautifully and were to make several more films together.
In 1996 Wilder travelled to London to appear in a stage production of Neil Simon’s comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Based on Simon’s youthful experience working on the Sid Caesar television show (with Wilder’s role a thinly disguised Caesar) it had been only a modest success on Broadway and fared similarly in London, though it was generally agreed that Wilder was better casting in the leading role than the more manic Nathan Lane had been on Broadway.
Even before he became ill Wilder had slowed down on the performing front although he won an Emmy award for an appearance in comedy series Will & Grace. “I don’t like show business, I realized,” he said in 2008. “I like show, but I don’t like the business.” But Wilder would later turn his hand to books. In 2005 Wilder produced a memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art; a collection of stories, What Is This Thing Called Love? (2010); and three novels: My French Whore (2007), The Woman Who Wouldn’t (2008) and Something to Remember You By (2013).