Today we have lost a titan, a legend in the comedy world. His name was Gene Wilder. Born Jerome Silberman in June of 1933, Jerome was the son of a salesman of novelty items. His father was a Russian Jewish immigrant, as were his maternal grandparents. Jerome later adopted the stage name of Gene Wilder at the age of 26 explaining, “I had always liked Gene because of Thomas Wolfe’s character Eugene Gant in “Look Homeward, Angel” and “Of Time and the River,” and I was always an admirer of Thornton Wilder. Wilder first was interested in the art of acting at the age of 8 when his mother was diagnosed with rheumatic fever and the doctor told him to “try and make her laugh.” Wilder was inspired by his sister who was studying onstage acting and performance which he thought was enthralling. Jerome was sent to Black-Foxe military academy in Hollywood by his mother who thought his potential was not reaching it’s full. There, he was bullied, sexually assaulted and beaten as he was the only Jewish kid at the school.
After a short term at Black-Foxe, he returned home and enrolled in the high school play of “Romeo and Juliet,” which he put a comedic spin on the popular Shakespearean tale. After high school, Jerome went to the University of Iowa where he became a dramatic arts major and graduated with honors in acting and fencing, as he was a collegiate fencing champion. In 1956, he was drafted into the army and served as a paramedic at the Valley Forge Hospital in Pennsylvania. After the army, Jerome’s first acting gig came on Broadway, as he performed in the Shakespearean play “Twelfth Night.” There he met actor Charles Grodin, who also was an up and coming actor on Broadway. Jerome was primarily known for stage acting before making it big into the Hollywood scene. It was in Hollywood, when Jerome adapted the stage name Gene Wilder, for which he is primarily known.
In Hollywood, Wilder had some of the most iconic roles to date, the funniest being Frederick Von Frankenstein, in the Mel Brook’s classic “Young Frankenstein.” Wilder went on to becoming good friends with director Mel Brooks, as the two also shot the comedy western “Blazing Saddles” together. In those films, his stage acting, and his unrelenting humor stole both films and today are considered to be classics. Wilder also worked with comedy legend Richard Pryor in films such as “See No Evil Hear No Evil.” Wilder also starred in “The Producers” with Zero Mostel which garnered a lot of praise. But Wilder’s most famous and legendary role to date was that of crazed candy man Willy Wonka in the 1971 classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” His take on the Roald Dahl classic is still popular as it was in the 1970’s for it’s off beat bizarre story, the weird cast of characters and Gene Wilder’s unflinchingly funny portrayal of an aging but genius candy maker. The music is terrific and iconic and the candy that was introduced in the movie spawned an actual brand of candy that is still being sold in drugstores today.
Wilder famously worked with great talented actors such as Zero Mostel, Madeline Kahn, and Anne Bancroft. But he most famously worked with and married fellow SNL actress Gilda Radner who tragically died two years after they got married. It wasn’t until later in Wilder’s career that he decided to quite acting and take up his long time hobby of painting. Wilder did not like the direction comedy was going in films, as it became more vulgar and sex-oriented. He once described current comedies as filth rather than old fashioned comedy and in a big way he was right, because most of the comedies that we have nowadays are all vulgar and extremely R-rated for cruel humor and sexual innuendos. Wilder never regretted leaving the business but he always longed for the old fashioned days of comedy. In his retirement, he painted, he wrote books and he spent time with his family. Wilder died on August 29, 2016 at the age of 83, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Gene Wilder was a comedic legend and a hero of mine, as his film “Young Frankenstein” is my all-time favorite comedy. His talent is unmatched by any one in the business, and he will be tragically missed.