Gene Wilder was one of the cinema’s most enduring stars. He starred in just over 20 movies but so many of them became box office classics that his impact on the American movie scene is incalculable. He passed away in 2016 at the age of 83 in Stamford, Connecticut. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for several years leading up to his death and it was complications of the condition that are said to have caused his demise. His condition was kept secret by his family who had decided that they did not want to distress the legion of young fans that he had built up. Let’s take a look back at the incredibly life of Gene Wilder.
Gene Wilder Didn’t Start Life As Gene Wilder
Gene Wilder was a stage name which became an identity, but he began life as the rather more prosaically named “Jerome Silberman.” He was born in Milwaukee on June 11, 1933, to parents Jeanne (Baer) and William J Silberman. His father manufactured and sold novelty gift products and his mother was a housewife.
Illness Brought Wilder To The Stage
Gene Wilder became interested in acting when he was 8 years old. It wasn’t because he was particularly precocious but rather because he was instructed by his mother’s doctor to “make her laugh” following a vicious bout of rheumatic fever. Sometimes laughter really is the best medicine and it turned Wilder on to the possibilities of acting.
He Had To Wait To Be Taught
When Wilder was 11 he visited his sister’s school and was enthralled by the acting teaching she was receiving. He marched up to the teacher and asked if he could begin acting lessons. He was told they’d take him if he came back at the age of 13, which he did, and immediately became a student.
Military Education Went Badly For Wilder
Gene’s mother felt that the schools in Wisconsin were failing to deliver an adequate education to her beloved son. So she decided to enroll him in Black-Foxe, which was a military school. He was constantly bullied and claims to have been sexually abused there because he was the only Jewish kid in school. He returned home after just a few months at Black-Foxe.
Wilder Subscribed To The Golden Rule
Gene Wilder was raised as a Jew in a Jewish family by a faithfully Jewish mother but he held to his own rule of faith, which he laid out as “The Golden Rule;” “I have no other religion. I feel very Jewish and I feel very grateful to be Jewish. But I don’t believe in God or anything to do with the Jewish religion.”
He Studied In England
He graduated from the Communication and Theatre Arts program of the University of Iowa and was immediately accepted into the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School based in Bristol, England. He gained another unusual skill there; he became a master fencer and won the All School Fencing Championship in his freshman year.
Wilder Served In The Army
In 1956, Gene Wilder was served with an Army draft notice and he found himself assigned to the medical corps. He did his basic training at Fort Sam, Houston. Given his choice of assignments following basic training, he picked Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania so he could be near New York City and continue to pursue acting in his spare time.
His First Acting Job Was On Stage
Gene Wilder had a scholarship to the HB studio which was how he was able to study without having to hold down a full-time job. It was during his time of study that he got his first paid gig. He was the Second Officer in a production of “Twelfth Night” performed in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
His Name Came From Thomas Wolfe and Thornton Wilder
Wilder was lifted straight from the author Thornton Wilder, as Gene Wilder was a huge fan of his work Our Town. Gene, on the other hand, came from Thomas Wolfer’s first novel Look Homeward, Angel. He was also said to have liked this because it reminded him of a relative who resembled the character in the book.
His First Lead Role Was Opposite Anne Bancroft
Gene Wilder’s career owes an awful lot to the Director Mel Brooks, but it was his wife, Anne Bancroft, that Gene came to know first. He acted opposite her in his first leading role “Mother Courage And Her Children” and she then introduced him to Mel Brooks who was her boyfriend at that time.
His First Movie Lead Was Down To Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks had been keen to cast Wilder in Springtime for Hitler but the role (and the film) never materialized. Wilder ended up spending three years touring with theater companies before Brooks called him for a reading for what would become The Producers. It was Wilder’s first movie role.
The Producers Became A Cult Classic
The Producers may have lost the title Springtime for Hitler but it didn’t lose that emphasis and on its release, it was very much ignored by cinema goers and critics. Then it won an Academy Award for “Best Screenplay” and went on to become the biggest cult classic of its time.
He Nearly Didn’t Play His Most Well-Known Role
Gene Wilder’s best-known role, beloved by millions of children worldwide is that of Willie Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Yet, to get the role, Wilder had to wait for Fred Astaire, Spike Milligan, Jon Pertwee, Joel Grey, and Ron Moody to turn it down. Strangely, Peter Sellers begged for the part and wasn’t even considered for it.
Charlie And The Chocolate Factory Was A Slow Hit
Source: Le Cinema Dreams
Given the immense popularity of this film, you’d have expected it to be a box office smash. Yet, it did badly on its opening weekend despite critical acclaim. Today it has an 89% “Fresh” rating on the review site Rotten Tomatoes. It’s considered to be a masterpiece of cinema by nearly everyone who watches it.
Coldplay Did a Tribute To Wilder As Willie Wonka
Wilder’s performance as Willie Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory spawned legions of young fans. One group of young British fans would go on to form the group “Coldplay” and record “Pure Imagination” as a tribute to Wilder’s genius in the movie. Coldplay is now one of the most popular musical groups of all time.
His First Box Office Hit Was With Woody Allen
While both The Producers and Charlie and The Chocolate Factory were critically acclaimed, neither was a box office success. It wasn’t until Woody Allen cast Wilder in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) that Wilder had his first commercial success. The film took in $18 million against its $2 million production budget.
Wilder Wrote The Script For Young Frankenstein
Gene Wilder wasn’t just an actor; he was also a talented writer. While working on Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), he wrote the script for Young Frankenstein. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find anyone to direct or produce the movie when he wrote it.
His Role In Blazing Saddles Was Spur Of The Moment
One of Gene’s best-known performances was as The Waco Kind in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Yet, he was only cast in the role because Dan Dailey had dropped out and his replaced Gig Young was too sick to make the film. It was Brooks’ first major commercial success too.
Blazing Saddles Got Young Frankenstein Made
Mel Brooks called Gene Wilder up as a last-minute replacement for his part in Blazing Saddles and Wilder only agreed to take a part in the movie if Brooks would agree to direct his movie, Young Frankenstein. Mel Brooks reluctantly agreed as he didn’t think the film would be a success.
Blazing Saddles Was A Smash Hit
While Gene’s role in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) was a success; it was his role in Blazing Saddles that brought him spectacular stardom. It was the 2nd most successful film at the American box office in 1974 — a huge deal.
Young Frankenstein Went Well, Too
Brooks might have been reluctant to make Wilder’s Young Frankenstein, but we bet he’s glad that he did. It was the third most successful film in America in 1974 and was beaten out of second place by Brooks’ other film; Blazing Saddles. The movie was also nominated for “Best Adapted Screenplay” at the 1975 Oscars.
Wilder Wrote And Directed A Sherlock Holmes Musical-Comedy
“The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” was Wilder’s directorial debut and he also wrote the script for the movie. The smarter brother was “Sigi” who was introduced because Wilder didn’t think it would be respectful to spoof the world famous literary figure. It was a minor success at the box office.
Silver Streak Was His First Film With Richard Pryor
Silver Streak was originally going to be called Super Chief. When Wilder read the script, he insisted the only person who could stop the movie from being crassly offensive to the audience was Richard Pryor. Pryor was hired and their partnership was the first successful inter-racial partnership at the American box office.
Stir Crazy Was His Second Partnership With Richard Pryor
Stir Crazy was a huge international hit for both Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor but their partnership during the making of it was much harder to manage than in Silver Streak, their first movie. Pryor had a serious cocaine problem at this point and the filming was a daily struggle to keep him focused on the job in hand.
The Woman In Red Won An Oscar… For Stevie Wonder
Wilder’s third directorial effort was The Woman in Red, released in 1984. It wasn’t well received by audiences or critics but it did make Kelly Le Brock’s acting career thanks to the infamous scene of her skirt being blown up her legs by a gust of wind coming through a grate. It also won Stevie Wonder an Oscar for the hit song, “I just called to say I love you.”
Haunted Honeymoon Won A Razzie
Wilder continued to direct movies and his fourth effort was Haunted Honeymoon. The film was near universally panned and lost a ton of money at the box office. It has only a 25% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It also won Dom DeLuise the Razzie Award (the Razzies are a kind of anti-Oscar for poor performances) for the Worst Support Actress for his performance as a drag artist.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil Sucked But Made Money
Wilder’s worst film might be his third appearance with Richard Pryor in See No Evil, Hear No Evil. The critics hated it, even if they did approve of the on-screen chemistry between the leads, suggesting it might be the dumbest movie of all time. It was, however, still a hit and made money for TriStar Pictures.
Another You Was His Last Film With Richard Pryor
By the time 1991 came around, Richard Pryor was a very sick man, and you can see in his performance in Another You that his multiple sclerosis was starting to take its toll. It would be his last movie with Pryor, before to Pryor’s death in 2005. Sadly, it was a critical and box office flop.
Wilder Joined The Wisconsin Hall Of Fame
Wilder was recognized for his acting and directorial efforts in 1991 by the Wisconsin Performing Arts Hall of Fame. He was inducted at the March Center for the Performing Arts in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in April of 1991. It was the biggest award of his career. Despite his popularity, he never won an Oscar.
Wilder’s Sitcom Was A Flop
Gene Wilder had his own sitcom “Something Wilder” which premiered in 1994. It was picked up by NBC, but was a complete flop with viewers even though it received critical praise. It was dropped after a mere 18 episodes and a single season. Three of those episodes were never aired.
He Won An Emmy With “Will & Grace”
Wilder finally picked up a major award in 2003 when he guest starred in the hit comedy series “Will & Grace.” He only appeared in two episodes but that was enough to take the Primetime Emmy Award for “Outstanding Guest Actor On a Comedy Series.” He played the part of Mr. Stein who was Will’s boss in the series.
Gene Wilder Was Married Four Times
Gene Wilder married Mary Mercier in 1960 but they spent little time together and divorced amicably in 1965. He married Katharine Schutz in 1967 and was divorced again seven years later when she accused him of cheating on her with an actress from Young Frankenstein. He married Gilda Radner in 1981 and she passed away of cancer in 1989 leaving him widowed. He then married Karen Webb in 1991.
He Took An Active Part In The Fight Against Cancer
Gilda Radner, Wilder’s third wife, died of Ovarian cancer and in her memory, he founded the “Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center” which is based in Los Angeles. He also helped to found “Gilda’s Club” which is a charitable organization that is dedicated to raising cancer awareness throughout America.
Wilder Co-Wrote A Book On Cancer
In addition to his charitable efforts combatting cancer; Gene Wilder also helped write a book about the condition. It was called Gilda’s Disease and was co-written by Steven Piver who worked as an oncologist. Wilde himself had a cancer scare in 1999, but by 2005 the disease had gone into complete remission.
His Memoir Was Critically Well Received
Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art was Gene Wilder’s autobiography and it was a critical triumph. It dealt with his life from birth to the death of his wife Gilda. It was praised for its “no holds barred” honesty as well as its gallant attitude to life and others.
Gene Wilder Didn’t Like Show Business
After he had retired from acting and directing Gene Wilder was interviewed for a special “Role Model: Gene Wilder” where Alec Baldwin conducted the interview. Wilder said; “I don’t like show business, I realized,” he explained. “I like show, but I don’t like the business.” He would end his career with many high notes.
Wilder Wrote Three Novels
Gene Wilder’s retirement wasn’t entirely sleepy. Between 2005 and 2013 he would write three novels plus a collection of short stories, considering he was in his 70s that’s pretty productive. They were My French Whore, The Woman Who Wouldn’t, Something to Remember You By: A Perilous Romance, and What Is This Called Love?
His First Novel Was Very Well Received
My French Whore was Wilder’s first novel and it won critical acclaim for the writing which was perceived to be sparse but perfect according to the reviews. It was also said to have some of the wittiest dialogue of any novel released that year; it was a modest sales success too.
Karen Boyer Was a Speech Pathologist
Wilder’s fourth and final wife, Karen Boyer, was a speech pathologist by trade. While she was working with people in the entertainment industry, it wasn’t her main job. He met when he called her into consult on his role as a deaf man in See No Evil, Hear No Evil.
Wilder Was Karen Boyer’s First Husband
Gene Wilder had been left distraught by the death of his third wife Gilda and had no intentions of marrying again. Karen Boyer, on the other hand, had never married and thought that by then, she would never get married. The romance seems to have been a complete surprise to both of them. She was with him until the very end but has made no statement to the press about his death.