Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Late Great Gene Wilder

Gene Wilder, the comic actor who starred in such classic films as The Producers (1968), Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), Blazing Saddles (1974), and Young Frankenstein (1974), died yesterday at the age of 83. The the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman  on June 11 1923 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He developed an interest in acting when he was eight years old when his mother developed rheumatic fever. The doctor advised young Jerry Silberman to make his mother laugh. His sister was studying acting and at age 11 young Mr. Silberman asked his sister's acting teacher if he would teach him as well. The acting teacher told him to wait until he was 13 and he would teach him if he was still interested. Young Jerry Silberman contacted the teacher the day after he turned 13. He taught him for two years.

It was also when he was around 13 years old that his mother decided to send him to the Black-Foxe Military Institute in Hollywood. The experience would prove to be very unpleasant for young Mr. Silberman, as he was bullied for being Jewish. He left Black-Foxe Military Institute after only one semester. Once home he began acting in community theatre and made his professional debut in a production of Romeo and Juliet when he was 15.

He studied theatre at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, and was then accepted at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in England. He studied fencing there and became the first freshman to ever win the All-School Fencing Championship. Upon his return to the United States he enrolled at  HB Studio. About the same time he was drafted into the United States Army. He ultimately served for two years an aide at he Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Valley Forge Army Hospital. While in the Army he continued to study at the HB Studio. 

After being discharged in 1958 he became a full time student at the HB Studio. His first professional job as an adult actor was playing the Second Officer and serving as fencing choreographer on Herbert Berghof's production of Twelfth Night in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He continued to study at the HB Studio and then began studying he Actors Studio. It was at this point in his career that he adopted the stage name "Gene Wilder". "Gene" was taken from the protagonist of Thomas Wolfe's novel Look Homeward, Angel, Eugene Gant. "Wilder" was taken from playwright Thornton Wilder. It was not long before Gene Wilder began appearing various productions. He appeared off-Broadway in  Sir Arnold Wesker's Roots.  He made his debut on Broadway in 1962 in Graham Greene's The Complaisant Lover, for which he won the Clarence Derwent Award for "Best Performance by an Actor in a Nonfeatured Role".

During the Sixties Gene Wilder appeared several more times on Broadway. He appeared in the productions Mother Courage and Her Children (1963), The White House (1964), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1964), and Luv (1967). He made his television debut in 1961 in an episode of Play of the Week. In the Sixties he guest starred on such shows as Armstrong Circle Theatre, The Defenders, and The DuPont Show of the Week. In 1966 he appeared in a CBS TV movie adaption of Death of a Salesman.

While Gene Wilder saw some success on stage and on television in the Sixties, his greatest successes during the decade were arguably in film. He made his film debut in 1967 in Bonnie and Clyde playing Eugene Grizzard, a hapless undertaker taken hostage by the criminals of the title. The following year he made his debut in a leading role in The Producers (1968). It was the first of three films that Gene Wilder made with director Mel Brooks. The two had met when Gene Wilder was working with Mel Brooks's then girlfriend (and later wife) on Broadway in Mother Courage and Her Children. In The Producers Mr. Wilder played Leo Bloom, an accountant who figures out a way to make more money on Broadway by producing a play that bombs than one that becomes a hit. While The Producers was not a hit at the box office upon its initial release, it did win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Since then its reputation has grown and it has become regarded as a classic.

Gene Wilder followed The Producers with Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), a parody of period pieces ranging from The Corsican Brothers to A Tale of Two Cities. It was directed by Bud Yorkin, now best known for producing such shows as All in the Family and Sanford and Son. In Start the Revolution Without Me, Gene Wilder played one set of identical twins (Pierre and Charles) who had been switched at birth with another set of identical twins ( Phillipe and Claude, played by Donald Sutherland). Start the Revolution Without Me was nominated for the Writers Guild of America award for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen. Unfortunately, it did not do particularly well at the box office, although it has developed a cult following over the years and is now regarded by many as a classic. Gene Wilder then played the title role in Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970). Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx was also nominated for  Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen. Unfortunately it also performed poorly at the box office, although it has developed a cult following as well.

The Seventies were arguably the height of Gene Wilder's career. He began the decade starring in the title role in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). Based on the book Charlie & the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, the musical fantasy did not do particularly well at the box office upon its initial release. That having been said, the film developed a cult following and is now regarded as a classic. In fact, Willy Wonka is now one of the roles most identified with Gene Wilder. The year 1974 would see Gene Wilder appear in two of his most popular movies. The first was Mel Brooks' film Blazing Saddles (1974), in which he played Jim, the Waco Kid. The film proved wildly successful at the box office, making $119.5 million. This made Blazing Saddles only the 10th film ever to surpass the $100 million. The second film released in 1974 was another film directed by Mel Brooks, although it was co-written by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder. Like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein also proved to be a success at the box office.

It was with The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975) that Gene Wilder made his directorial debut. He also played the title character and also wrote the screenplay. While The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother was not a success at the box office, like many of his earlier films it would develop a cult following. In the Seventies Gene Wilder also directed The World's Greatest Lover (1977--in which he also starred as well as wrote the screenplay) and the segment "Skippy" in the film Sunday Lovers (1980).  Throughout the decade Gene Wilder starred in several films, including Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) , Rhinoceros (1974), The Little Prince (1974), Silver Streak (1976), The Frisco Kid (1979), and Stir Crazy (1980). In both Silver Streak and Stir Crazy he co-starred with legendary comic Richard Pryor. Both films proved very successful at the box office.

In the Eighties Gene Wilder directed and starred in The Woman in Red (1984). He also wrote the story for the film (the screenplay was written by Yves Robert).  He also directed and starred in Haunted Honeymoon (1986), as well as co-wrote the screen play with Terence Marsh. He was reunited with Richard Pryor in the film See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989), which he co-wrote with several others. He also appeared in the films Hanky Panky (1982) and Funny About Love (1990).

In the Nineties Gene Wilder appeared in his final feature film, Another You (1991). He starred in the short lived TV series Something Wilder. He starred in the TV movies Eligible Dentist (1993) and Alice in Wonderland (1999). He starred in the TV movies Murder in a Small Town (1999) and The Lady in Question (1999), which he co-wrote with Gilbert Pearlman. In the Naughts Gene Wilder guest starred twice on Will & Grace as Mr. Stein. In 2015 he was a guest voice on the children's series Yo Gabba Gabba!.

Later in his life Gene Wilder turned to writing. His novel  My French Whore was published in 2007. It was followed by the novel The Woman Who Wouldn't in 2008, a collection of stories, What Is This Thing Called Love?, in 2010, and  the novel Something to Remember You By in 2013. He published his memoirs, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, in 2005.

I have to admit that even though Gene Wilder was not exactly young, I have been greatly saddened by his death. The fact is that Gene Wilder played a big part in my childhood. I'm not sure what the first Gene Wilder film I ever saw was. It might have been Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, which made its television debut on NBC in 1975. Of course, it is possible that instead it was Start the Revolution Without Me, of which I have fond memories of watching when NBC aired it New Years Day afternoon in 1976. Regardless, I would soon see many others of his films: Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, and yet others. Gene Wilder was one of my favourite performers as a tween and teen, and he remained one of my favourites throughout my adult life.

I rather suspect that Gene Wilder was a favourite of many people from their childhoods into their adulthoods. He was a very talented actor and played a diverse number of roles throughout his career. He was both the aristocratic Phillipe and the dim witted Claude in Start the Revolution Without Me. He was the mysterious, yet slightly sarcastic Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. He was the ultra-cool Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. While he was best known for his comedies, Gene Wilder could and did act in dramas. Indeed, he appeared in a television adaption of Death of a Salesman, as well as the TV movie The Scarecrow. Of course, it would seem Gene Wilder's greatest gift was for making people laugh. It should be no surprise that many of his films would develop cult followings, even after they had initially failed at the box office. Gene Wilder was just so funny in so many films that any of his given movies could not remain unappreciated for long.

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