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Gene Wilder
Written by James Colt Harrison   

GENE WILDER MADE US LAUGH

By James Colt Harrison

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Date of Birth: June 11, 1933

Place of Birth: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Date of Death: August 29, 2016

Place of Death: Connecticut

Cause of Death: Alzheimer’s

 

 

EARLY YEARS

Hollywood has lost another comic genius with the passing of Gene Wilder, the star of so many popular comedy films. Wilder gained his most fame in a series of films he made with director/writer/actor Mel Brooks in the 1970s.

Growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he was born as Jerome Silberman, June 11, 1933, he became interested in acting at age 8. He was assigned to make his mother laugh when she was ill. The doctor felt it would help her to get well—and it did. That whetted little Jerome’s interest in “play acting.” When he saw his older sister performing in a school production, he was incurably “stage struck.”

After attending the prestigious Black-Foxe military school in Hollywood, where his mother thought he would learn discipline, he returned home to graduate from a Milwaukee high school. During high school he got involved in community theater.

Upon graduation from the University of Iowa’s Communication and Theatre Arts program in 1955, he was accepted at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre in England.

MIDDLE YEARS

Unfortunately, he was soon drafted into the Army in September of 1956 and was assigned to the medical corps. There was an opportunity to transfer to New York where he would be close to the theater schools. So, while working in the Psychiatric Unit at Valley Forge Army Hospital, he attended drama classes at HB Studio where he studied with the legendary teachers Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof. He also studied with Lee Srasberg at the famous Actor’s Studio where previous students were Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando. Wilder became known on the off-Broadway scene and also toured the country in various theater productions. 

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Gene Wilder in Bonnie and Clyde
As luck would have it, he was cast in a minor, but significant, role in the Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway crime thriller Bonnie and Clyde, his first film appearance. When he was cast in a stage production of Mother Courage and Her Children with film star Anne Bancroft, he met her then-boyfriend (later husband) Mel Brooks. 

 

 

Wilder was promised a role in a film Brooks was writing. It took three years for Wilder to be called by Brooks to appear in a movie called Springtime For Hitler. The title was changed to The Producers (1968) and became a classic comedy hit. It was Wilder’s first featured role in a motion picture. Brooks won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and Wilder was nominated for the best Supporting Actor Academy Award.

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Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Wilder didn’t have much luck with his subsequent movies. Almost none were box-office hits and films such as Start The Revolution Without Me, and Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin in the Bronx in 1970, never found an audience. Wilder did much better when he was cast in the title role in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. It is probably one of the films he is most remembered for doing during this period. Even at that, the 1971 release was not huge at the box-office. 

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Everything You Wanted To Know
Fellow comic and director Woody Allen offered Wilder a part in his 1972 comedy romp Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask). The film was a hit and put Wilder back on top of box-office stars.

When 1974 rolled around, he managed to squeeze in a television movie called Thursday’s Game before returning to the big screen. It was a significant year for Wilder as he starred in two films that will forever cement his place in the annals of comedy. First was Blazing Saddles, a Mel Brooks zany and twisted look at Westerns. It was a wild spoof of Hollywood’s idea of the Old West. Wilder played a drunken ex-gun-fighter who helps the new black sheriff (Cleavon Little) save a town from crooked politicians and railroad tycoons who are bent on stealing the whole town. Madeline Kahn played the hilarious chanteuse Lilly Von Schtupp. The movie was very avante garde at the time and had some pretty raunchy humor. It was a huge hit. 

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Young Frankenstein
Wilder had an idea he thought would interest Brooks for their next picture. He envisioned a camp version of the Frankenstein monster story originally written by Mary Shelley in the 1800s. Wilder and Brooks co-wrote the script and made it an homage to Boris Karloff, the original monster in Universal Pictures 1931 version directed by James Whale. The film was played strictly for laughs and campy situations only found in a Mel Brooks film. With a stellar cast of Peter Boyle as the monster, Marty Feldman as Igor, Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher, and again Madeline Kahn, it was a laugh riot. The picture was an instant hit, it became a comic classic, and it earned 40 times what it cost. 

Wilder always wanted to find new horizons, and he found it with comic Richard Pryor. The two had met during the filming of Blazing Saddles, on which Pryor served as one of the writers. They put their heads together and came up with the old murder-on-a-train plot and turned it into the adventure-comedy Silver Streak in 1976. Jill Clayburgh joined in the fun and helped turn the movie into a giant hit.

LATER YEARS  

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Stir Crazy
Pryor and Wilder got together again in 1980 for the comedy caper Stir Crazy, in which they were jailed for a crime they did not commit. Their partnership created two more pictures. One was See No Evil, Hear No Evil in 1989 and Another You in 1991. 

After that, Wilder turned his talents more to doing television movies and one series. He was slowing down and was leaning more towards writing than acting. He even did a stage play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor in London in 1996. He wrote five books, including Kiss Me Like A Stranger, and his memoirs in 2005. His last acting gig was on the television series Will & Grace in 2003.

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Mr. Wilder was married four times. His first wife was actress Mary Mercier. After a divorce he married Mary Joan Schutz in 1967 – 1980; they had one child. His most famous marriage was to Saturday Night Live comedienne Gilda Radner.

When she died of cancer in 1989, Wilder helped promote ovarian cancer awareness and was incidental in founding the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles. He leaves behind his most recent wife costume and wardrobe supervisor Karen Boyer.

 

Gene Wilder died quietly at his home in Connecticut at age 83 of Alzheimer’s disease, August 29, 2016.

 

 



                       

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