More Than Just Willy Wonka, Gene Wilder Lived An Incredible Life Behind The Scenes

Know best for his iconic take as Willy Wonka in 1971, Gene Wilder is one of the most beloved actors of all-time. In the blink of an eye, he could go from splitting your side with laughter to making you cry from cinematic heartbreak. Nominated for two Academy Awards during his esteemed career, Wilder’s life on the screen was just as incredible as his life behind the scenes. This is everything you need to know about Wilder’s life and work.

Gene Wilder Isn’t His Real Name

gene wilder willy wonka
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Like hundreds of actors who came before him and after him, Gene Wilder used a stage name when he got to Hollywood. Wilder was born Jerome Silberman. He came up with his stage name through his love of Thornton Wilder and fictional character Eugene Grant.

Other famous actors who use stage names include Michael Keaton, Vin Diesel, Meg Ryan, Tim Allen, and many more. Some were forced to change their name because it already belonged to another actor, while others wanted something easier to pronounce than their given name.

He Started Performing To Cheer Up His Sick Mother

young gene wilder
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

When he was a young boy, Wilder’s mother, Jeanne Baer Silberman, took ill with rheumatic fever. While she was recovering, her doctor told Wilder that he could help by finding a way to “try and make her laugh.”

Wilder was then further inspired by his older sister. He saw her perform on stage and wanted to follow in her footsteps. When he approached his sister’s teacher at 11-years-old, he was told to ask again when he turned 13 if he was still interested.

His Talent Was Too Big For Wisconsin

gene wilder movie
FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images
FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

Gene Wilder spent two years training with his sister’s acting teacher before his next big move came. His mother felt that he was a big fish in a little pond and was wasting his talents in Wisconsin, so she sent him to California.

Wilder was enrolled at the Black-Foxe Military Institute in Hollywood. Unfortunately, he faced a harsh reality when he got to the school. He became a target of bullying and quickly left the school to move back home.

He Served In The Army

Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

After finishing college, Gene Wilder was drafted into the United States Army. He served from 1956 until 1958, treating psychiatric patients at the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology. The department was located in Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.

He was lucky enough to be able to choose any open post after basic training and purposely chose the one as close to New York as possible so he could attend acting classes at HB Studio.

He Auditioned For Steve McQueen’s Role In The Magnificent Seven

gene wilder in a movie
TriStar Pictures
TriStar Pictures

In 1960, the film The Magnificent Seven was in production and being cast. Wilder was lucky enough to get an audition for the film, reading for the part of Vin Tannen.

The role wound up going to Steve McQueen, but it wouldn’t be too long until Wilder got cast in his first role. In 1961, he played Happy on an episode of Play of the Week. The anthology series featured a different stage play every week and ran from 1959 until 1961.

Anne Bancroft Introduced Him To Mel Brooks

mel brooks and gene wilder
Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic
Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks first met in 1963 thanks to actress Anne Bancroft. Bancroft was dating Brooks at the same time she was starring with Wilder in the stage play Mother Courage and Her Children.

Meeting Brooks turned out to be one of the biggest moments of the actor’s career. Together, the pair would go on to make the classic comedies Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and The Producers together. The collaboration also netted Wilder two Academy Award nominations.

He Never Looked At Himself As A Comic Actor

gene wilder in bonnie and clyde
Warner Brothers
Warner Brothers

Although Gene Wilder is known best for his comedic roles, he never considered himself to be a comedian. It wasn’t until he met Mel Brooks that he realized his potential to make people laugh out loud.

Early in his career he even got to show off his dramatic chops as Eugene Grizzard in Bonnie and Clyde. The role was small, but the movie was huge, becoming one of the most successful of 1967 and winning two Academy Awards.

He Walked Out On His Audition For Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka sitting on a hill
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

When he auditioned for the role of Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in 1971, Wilder was not a happy actor. After reading his lines, he decided he was done and walked out.

Thankfully, director Mel Stuart refused to let him get too far and chased after Wilder, offering him the role on the spot. The film was a flop when it came out, but has gone on to be considered a classic since.

Wilder Didn’t Want Willy Wonka To Be Trusted

Willy Wonka scene from the movie
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

When we first meet Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, he approaches the children, and the audience for that matter, with a cane and a limp. Then, just before he reaches the gate, he rolls over and jumps up, proving there is nothing wrong with him.

This now-famous moment was not written in the original script. Wilder actually insisted on including it because he wanted the audience to feel like they couldn’t trust the character.

Wilder Was Married Four Times

gene wilder and gilda radner
Micheline PELLETIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Micheline PELLETIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Gene Wilder was married four times during his life. His first wife was Mary Mercier. The couple met while studying together at HB Studio in New York. During their five years together, they were apart often, leading to their divorce in 1965.

Wilder married his second wife, Mary Joan Schutz, two years later, but the marriage was doomed from the start. In 1981, he met Gilda Radner while filming Hanky Panky. The chemistry between the two was instant and they were married from 1984 until her death in 1989. Seven years later, Wilder married Karen Boyer. It was his fourth and final marriage.

He’s Published Three Books

Gene Wilder posing with one of his three novels
Charley Gallay/Getty Images
Charley Gallay/Getty Images

In 2007, Gene Wilder released his first fiction novel. It was set during World War I and is described as a romantic comedy of errors and deceptions. One year later he released his second novel, The Woman Who Wouldn’t.

Between publishing his second and third novel, Wilder wrote a collection of children’s stories, What Is This Thing Called Love. Finally, in 2010, his third and last novel, Something to Remember You By was published.

He Never Watched Johnny Depp’s Take On Willy Wonka

johnny depp as willy wonka
Warner Brothers
Warner Brothers

In 2005, Johnny Depp starred as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a new adaptation of the novel directed by Tim Burton. A fan of the actor’s work, Wilder decided not to watch Depp’s take on the character, saying:

“The thing that put me off … I like Johnny Depp, I like him, as an actor I like him very much … but when I saw little pieces in the promotion of what he was doing, I said I don’t want to see the film, because I don’t want to be disappointed in him.”

Mel Brooks Didn’t Want To Make Young Frankenstein… At First

Gene Wilder in young frankenstein
20th Century-Fox/Getty Images
20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

Wilder was facing several years of box office failures when he signed on to star in Blazing Saddles. While the movie was filming, the actor was working out the idea for the movie Young Frankenstein. When he brought the idea to Brooks, the esteemed director turned him down.

Wilder kept working Brooks, bring the idea up to him again and again. Eventually, Brooks caved, latching onto the idea that Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson is forced to deal with his family’s legacy after being left the castle and research contained within its walls.

Wilder Founded The Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center

Gene Wilder And his late wife Gilda Radner
Ted Dully/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Ted Dully/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

For the most part, Gene Wilder kept his private interests exactly that. There was one cause that he went public with and became a champion for — cancer research. In 1957, ovarian cancer took the life of his mother.

Then, in 1989, the same ailment took his third wife, Gilda Radner. Having suffered two personal losses, Wilder decided to start a foundation in his late wife’s name. He later opened the Golda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles.

He Quit Acting Because He Didn’t Like The Direction The Medium Was Heading In

gene wilder posing with a book
Goffredo di Crollalanza/FilmMagic
Goffredo di Crollalanza/FilmMagic

Gene Wilder’s last feature film credit came in 1991 in Another You. His final performance came a decade later as a guest star on Will and Grace. During his break from acting, he began his career as a novelist.

But the question remains, why did Wilder walk away from the spotlight? He explained in Time Out New York, saying he was “tired of watching the bombing, shooting, killing, swearing, and 3-D. I get 52 movies a year sent to me, and maybe there are three good [ones].”

He Was An Avid Fencer In School

Gene Wilder posing in a suit having his picture taken
Art Zelin/Getty Images
Art Zelin/Getty Images

Before starting his acting career, Wilder studied communication and theatre arts at the University of Iowa. While there, he became a very successful student and was even a member of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity.

After graduating, he moved onto the Old Vic Theatre School in England. It was here that he not only sharpened his talents, he also took up a new hobby, fencing. During his acting career, his fencing skills came into use when he was tasked with swordplay choreography on several projects.

He Was Not Originally Cast In Blazing Saddles

blazing-saddles gene wilder
Warner Brothers
Warner Brothers

Wilder received rave reviews for his performance as the Wako Kid in Blazing Saddles. Directed by Mel Brooks, the actor wasn’t originally cast in the film. Brooks first gave the role to Dan Dailey and asked Wilder to play Hedley Lamarr, a role he turned down.

Dailey quickly asked to be let out of his contract and was replaced with Gig Young. Young became an issue on set and was dealing with his own personal baggage. When Young was fired, Wilder was finally cast in the now-iconic role.

He Was Close With Richard Pryor

gene wilder and richard pryor
TriStar Pictres
TriStar Pictres

Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder had a close relationship that saw them star alongside each other in several films. Wilder even wrote the last two movies they starred in together, Another You and See No Evil, Hear No Evil.

One of the first experiences they had with each other involved improvisation, a performance form Wilder had never tried before, “We did the first scene, and he said something, and I something — and it wasn’t in the script — after the camera started rolling. And it went very well. And he said, did you know you were going to say that? I said, no. Did you know you were going to say that? He said, no. I never improvised in a film before.”

He Married His Second Wife To Have A Family Together

Willy Wonka with violet
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Gene Wilder didn’t have any biological children of his own while he was alive, but he still had a daughter. When he married Mary Joan Schutz in 1967, part of the reason was that her daughter had begun calling him “Dad” so he wanted to do the honorable thing.

The marriage lasted for four years and gave Wilder a family to be responsible for. After he and Schutz divorced, he lost contact with his step-daughter.

Something Wilder Changed His Perspective On Hollywood

Gene-Wilder-Alice-Cooper
NBC
NBC

In the ’90s, Wilder stopped acting in movies and only sporadically acted on television. Part of the reason for that was the failure of his 1994 sitcom Something Wilder. The comedy was about him and his TV wife raising fraternal twins together.

The experience of dealing with television execs left a sour taste in Wilder’s mouth, “You said this is Something Wilder.’ [They said], ‘Yeah, but you can’t come and tell them how you think it should be.’ Well, if I’d known that, I would have said, ‘Well, I’ll go home and when you’re ready for me, call me and I’ll come back.’ But I didn’t know enough to say it. I didn’t have the guts enough.”