Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on June 11th, 1933. He grew up to be one of the best comedic actors ever – up there with the likes of Charlie Chaplin. In the course of his distinguished career, Wilder collaborated with comedy luminaries like Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor and played a large part in helping to make “lowbrow” comedy a high art form. His brilliant writing and performances earned him awards nominations which is a feat in and of itself since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is notoriously stingy about recognizing comedic performances and writing.
Wilder’s over the top performance as the neurotic Leo Bloom in The Producers (1967) kicked off his celebrated collaboration with Mel Brooks and gained him a rare for comedy Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. No one else could play frantic neurosis and make it quite as hilarious as Wilder.
In 1971, he appeared as the titular master confectioner in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a musical adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl children’s book. His weird and wonderful performance as Willy Wonka is beloved and the film has achieved family classic status.
1974 proved to be a banner year for Gene Wilder’s career, seeing the release of not one, not two, but THREE classics. He re-teamed with Mel Brooks for the genre warping, bawdy comedy western Blazing Saddles as Jim, a drunken sharpshooter. He also starred in Young Frankenstein (which he co-wrote with Brooks) as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (FRONKENSTEEN) the American grandson of the infamous scientist of monster creating fame. Wilder and Brooks received an Academy Award nomination for the inspired lunacy of their writing on this classic comedy. Additionally, he made a lovely, sweet and indelible impression as the Fox in the 1974 adaptation of The Little Prince.
Wilder’s collaborations with Richard Pryor may on first glance, seem unlikely on the surface, but the two shared an incredible improvisational and comedic rapport. They met during the production of Blazing Saddles (which Pryor co-wrote with Mel Brooks) and went on to other movie partnerships including Silver Streak (1976) and Stir Crazy (1980).
We lost Mr. Wilder to Alzheimer’s in August of 2016 but his movies live on and several of them can be enjoyed at the Byrd Theatre this month.
Under the Big Screen Classics banner, “May Comedies,” catch Gene Wilder in a double bill, Wednesday, May 3rd: