Joey Sack ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Lightning in a bottle. That is the way many people describe the working relationship between famed comedy filmmaker Mel Brooks and one of his frequent collaborators, the late great Gene Wilder. As Brooks said while accepting his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for The Producers in 1969, “I’d also like to thank Gene Wilder, I’d also like to thank Gene Wilder, I’d also like to thank Gene Wilder,” proving how important Wilder’s performance was to Brooks’s first film, and how important he’d become to Brooks’s film career moving forward.
Wilder also graced the silver screen in such classics as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein (which he co-wrote with Brooks), and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, along with projects co-starring the likes of Richard Pryor (1940-2005), as well as his wife, SNL alum Gilda Radner (1946-1989). Aside from acting, screenwriting, and directing, Wilder was also a writer, releasing several books over the years and releasing his autobiography, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, in 2006. He also co-founded Gilda’s Club, a community organization to support people living with cancer. It was founded in memory of Wilder’s wife, Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989.
Wilder passed away Monday, August 29th, from complications due to Alzheimer’s disease. His passing is another tragic death that has dimmed the stars this past year, but it is important to remember him for the laughter and joy he brought to film audiences the world over, whether in more adult-oriented roles like Jim in Blazing Saddles, or his heartwarming and zany performance as Willy Wonka. That range of genres, from satire comedy to children’s story adaptations, is one of the many reasons why Gene Wilder will be sorely missed.
In many of Wilder’s roles, he could switch between out-of-control hilarity, reserved seriousness, and heartwarming reassurance, all without missing a beat. Famously, the scene in Willy Wonka in which his character walks out with a cane and ends up doing a somersault, was Wilder’s idea, as well as something he insisted on doing before he agreed to play the role. He claimed that he wanted that scene to be included to confuse the audience as to Wonka’s intentions. While filming his freakout scene in the 1968 film The Producers, Wilder asked for chocolate in order to be more energized for the role, which was filmed after a long day of shooting, and also drank coffee at Mel Brooks’s request (even though Wilder didn’t like coffee); the results, as audiences know, were well worth it, especially since it earned Wilder an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Unlike many actors who continue performing until the end, Wilder, in his later career, became more selective about what projects he worked on, his final film role being in the 1991 film Another You, co-starring Richard Pryor. He played several roles on various TV shows, and his final TV role, as Will’s boss, Mr. Stein, on Will & Grace, earned him a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor on a Comedy Series.
When people look back on Gene Wilder’s life and career, they will see a man who was kind, dedicated, funny, wacky, and brilliant. They will see how he could jump between genres with such ease and dexterity, making his characters unpredictable and entertaining. And they will see a man who loved acting, but hated show business, choosing to retire when the time felt right. His is a legacy of laughs and smiles, whether you remember him as the gun-slinging Waco Kid, the uptight Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (“that’s Fonk-en-steen”), or the cane-wielding somersaulting owner of a chocolate factory. The people he entertained, the characters he portrayed, and the films he appeared in, are all the better for having known the brilliance of Gene Wilder, and he leaves a legacy that the world will never forget.