Gene Wilder, the singular comedy actor whose many iconic credits include Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the Mel Brooks classics Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles and The Producers, died late Sunday from complications of Alzheimer’s disease in Stamford, CT. His family confirmed the news to the Associated Press.
Born Jerome Silberman on June 11. 1933, in Milwaukee, Wilder started his career in TV and onstage in the early 1960s but later would focus on features, starting with Bonnie & Clyde (1967). That same year, he starred as Leo Bloom opposite Zero Mostel in The Producers — which landed Wilder a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and began a storied collaboration with Brooks. Wilder starred in other features including Start the Revolution Without Me before landing his breakout role as Willy Wonka. Mel Stuart’s groovy 1971 film adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory made Wilder a star, playing the chocolate mogul who invites five lucky “Golden Ticket” winners to tour his factory — with lesson-learning results. Wilder’s understated but knows-more-than-he-lets-on character is a cinematic gem.
But three years later he would solidify his comedy icon status with a pair of films often mentioned among the greatest comedies of all time.
He played the jailed rummy Jim, aka the Waco Kid, opposite Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles, the Western sendup that was among the highest-grossing films of 1974. The character bonds with Little’s unpopular — to say the least — sheriff, and the two set out to keep the denizens of Rock Ridge from leaving town amid a push by the governor (Brooks) and the duplicitous Hedy Lamarr — sorry, that’s Hedley — played with genius timing by Harvey Korman. The huge cast also included Brooks regulars Madeline Kahn and Dom DeLuise.
Later that year, Wilder played the title character in the nearly equally knee-slapping Young Frankenstein — “That’s fronkensteen!” — a star-packed takeoff on Universal’s classic monster movie franchise that Wilder co-wrote with Brooks, earning them Adapted Screenplay Oscar and Golden Globe noms. He led a genius cast that included Kahn, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle and Gene Hackman.
That box office and critical one-two punch remains among the greatest in Hollywood history — single year or not.
Wilder also made time in 1974 to appear in Stanley Donen’s The Little Prince that year. In 1976, Wilder starred in the first of four onscreen pairings with Richard Pryor, who had co-penned Blazing Saddles. Silver Streak also starred Jill Clayburgh and Ned Beatty in the story of a train trip rife with intrigue, romance and murder. That was followed by the Sidney Poitier-directed prison yarn Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) — in which Wilder played a deaf man and Pryor’s character was blind — and Another You (1991).
Wilder also wrote, directed and starred in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Younger Brother (1975) and The World’s Greatest Lover (1977) and starred in Rhinoceros (1974), again opposite Mostel; The Frisco Kid with Harrison Ford (1979); anthology sex comedy Sunday Lovers (1980); Sundany Love Hanky Panky (1982) with Saturday Night Live original Gilda Radner — to whom he was married from 1984 until her death in 1989 — The Woman in Red (1984), featuring Charles Grodin and Kelly LeBrock, which Wilder also directed; Haunted Honeymoon (1986), again with Radner, which he co-wrote; and Funny About Love (1990), directed by Leonard Nimoy. He also toplined a segment of 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Afraid to Ask), written and directed and starring Woody Allen.
On the TV side, Wilder toplined the NBC sitcom Something Wilder as an emotional and sensitive ad man who was a doting father to 4-year-old twins. It lasted one season in 1994-95. Nearly a decade later, he won an Emmy for his guest role on Will & Grace. Wilder was mostly retired after that but surfaced with a voice role on an episode of kids show Yo Gabba Gabba! Earlier in his career, Wilder appeared in a number of TV movies including Death of a Salesman, The Scarecrow, Acts of Love and Other Comedies and Thursday’s Game.
Wilder also had a few brief stints on Broadway in the short-lived shows The Complaisant Lover (1961), Mother Courage and Her Children (1963), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the Billy Bibbit role (1964) and Luv (1964). He also is credited on Brooks’ 2007 musical version of Young Frankenstein as a co-writer of the original movie.
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