After the passing of a beloved comic legend, Claudia Dalby explores his the career of Gene Wilder in order to celebrate his legacy.
Gene Wilder, who passed away at age 83 on the 29th of August, was a treasured actor, screenwriter, comedian and novelist. Those of us lucky enough to have been around before the fall of the video cassette may know him from sitting cross-legged and enthralled watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Long before CGI-powered glass elevators, meaning all the captivation on screen, past the possibility of endless candy, was in the fantastically frenzied blue eyes of Gene Wilder.
Born Jerome Silberman, he first found his comedic footing as a child: when his mother was sick, he would entertain her with jokes and accents until she laughed. It was his mother who would insist that he had a flair for comedy. Years later, he went on to study theatre in university, later working for the US Army while teaching fencing classes to fund his fledgling acting career.
His evenings were spent at classes and performing in plays. It was at that point Jerome saw his birth-given name not a title fit for an actor, and through combining a character’s name in a Wolfe novel with the playwright Thomas Wilder, plucked “Gene Wilder.” It was not until he met Mel Brooks, however, that his future was secured. They traded jokes and became fast friends, a comedic match made in heaven.
Wilder brought a truly irreplaceable presence to the screen, with a wild, rocket-fuelled, neurotic energy that bubbled with silent tension. His silly, charismatic wit combined with a notably impeccable comedic timing stood apart from more placid comic actors. He perfected the art of silence, of holding it for just a little too long; energy and anticipation build in these moments, until there is a sudden release of mirth that is all but guaranteed to create laughter. Such comic skill and originality remain unmatched in modern Hollywood.
The Producers (1968), written by Mel Brooks, is considered a comic masterpiece, and Wilder’s performance marks a cornerstone of its success. Expressive and excitable, Wilder fits the role of anxious accountant Leo Bloom brilliantly throughout the film’s absurd highs and lows.
This performance kick-started the comedian’s career, and was followed by incredible deadpan performance as Jim in Mel Brooks’ next film, Blazing Saddles (1974). Wilder would later co-write Young Frankenstein (1974) with Brooks. He based the film on an idea he had had since being terrified of Frankenstein’s monster in his childhood. He then went on to write and direct more comedies, and while few reached the height of his three with Mel Brooks, his energetic wit was ever-present.
Wilder’s final contribution to acting was a guest role on Will & Grace, for which he received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor. Following the death of his wife, Gilda Radner, he spent less time acting and turned instead to writing, finishing three novels and one memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, a highly personal account of his life.
Few knew of his Alzheimer’s disease, making his death a greater shock to fans, to all those whose child-and-adulthoods alike were illuminated by the joy he brought to the screen. Wilder decided to not disclose the details of his illness – he did not want a single child to hear an adult referencing illness or trouble, or to dampen delight with worry and disappointment. He dealt with the death of his wife with the same outward optimism, founding the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Centre in Los Angeles.
On set, Wilder would abstain from cracking jokes and instead maintained a warm, whisper-calm presence that lent a reassuring quality to his performances on screen. Wilder’s endearing eyes and curly hair were as constant as the warmth and charisma he brought to each and every character he played. Such was the nature of Willy Wonka – a character played with the utmost sincerity by the actor. Johnny Depp’s later interpretation of Wonka was unpredictably detached, whereas Wilder’s was engaging in an erratic, yet deeply emotional way.
Wilder once said of himself, “my quiet exterior used to be a mask for hysteria. After seven years of analysis it just becomes a habit.” There was something true to life in his portrayal of his characters in Young Frankenstein and Willy Wonka: characters were like a wavering surface that was primed to burst at any moment.
So not only did Wilder comedy bring joy to moviegoers, but he also made a conscious effort to enrich those around him by providing a calm, reflective atmosphere. The delirious compassion of Gene Wilder lives on, still, in those old video cassettes, waiting to be rewound one last time.