Goodbye, Gene Wilder.
Jerome Silberman was born in depression era Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1933. We lost him today, another one of the greats, known to us as Gene Wilder.
To many a millennial Gene Wilder was just a meme; a wide-eyed Willy Wonka in a fly sienna velvet top hat with many captions added to the image. But, to my mother’s generation, he was one of the many wild haired bohemians that collaborated with director Mel Brooks in a series of sexually, politically and racially charged comedies; The Producers, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. To my generation he’s better known for his slapstick on-screen performances with legendary Richard Pryor and the film Woman in Red with brickhouse Kelly LeBrock.
Wilder’s theatrical chops, that he flaunted in The Producers, didn’t come naturally. Wilder studied with Lee Strasberg which undoubtedly led to his acceptance into the Actors Studio. If Wilder hadn’t been so theatrically gifted, he could have easily been taken for an original cast member of SNL. Although he wasn’t, he married one; Wilder was married to Gilda Radner for five-years until she died of ovarian cancer (a cancer which also took Wilder’s mother in 1957, a year before he was discharged from the army).
Unfortunately, all of the movies he did after The Producers were failures until his role in Woody Allen’s commercially successful film, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex…. Obviously the success was encouraging enough to get his mojo going, afterwards he began to write Young Frankenstein (which won Wilder and Brooks an Oscar nomination), filmed The Little Prince and shot his scenes in Blazing Saddles, consecutively! 1980’s Stir Crazy – directed by Sidney Poitier – was an instant hit. Richard Pryor and theatrical Wilder were a natural comedy duo.
Like many artists, Wilder seemed a complex character. He opposed the Vietnam War, founded a charity for cancer awareness called Gilda’s Club, painted watercolors, wrote a memoir and two novels, married four times and had no biological children. While he unofficially retired from acting in the early 2000s – stating he didn’t “like show business…I like show, but I don’t like the business” – he still lended his celebrity to bring awareness for various causes.
He died at the age of 83, in his Stamford, Connecticut home, due to complications from Alzheimer’s.
“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”