Obituary: Gene Wilder
- 29 August 2016
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Gene Wilder's distinctive looks helped him create roles that he made his own.
His performances combined sentimentality, comedy and suppressed rage, often veering between idiocy and apoplexy.
Films such as Young Frankenstein, Silver Streak and The Producers established him as one of Hollywood's top comedy talents.
But behind the corkscrew hair, the bulging organ-stop eyes and the twitchy mannerisms, lay a much gentler, more reflective individual.
He was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on 11 June 1933.
He later described his childhood as "sane but disturbed" and was always drawn to acting by the "chance to be someone else".
When he was eight years old, Wilder's mother had a heart attack.
Her doctor took the confused child to one side and told him: "Don't ever get angry with her, you might kill her." He turned to leave and added: "You can make her laugh, though."
For years Wilder harboured the belief that any harsh words would end his mother's life.
His parents sent him to a military school in Hollywood where, as the only Jewish boy, he recalled the bullying that made his life a misery.
He quickly returned home where he became involved with the local theatre, making his first public performance at the age of 15 in a production of Romeo and Juliet.
He took a course in Communication and Theatre Arts at the University of Iowa before moving to England to pursue his studies with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
He felt stifled by his acting lessons in Britain, but became the first American to win the English Schools Fencing Championship. He admitted he had always worshipped Errol Flynn.
In 1956 he was drafted into the US Army where he found himself posted as an aide in a psychiatric ward, helping to administer electro-shock therapy to patients.
On his discharge, he went back to acting, having changed his name to Gene Wilder, partly, he later said, because he could not imagine a Jerry Silberman being asked to play Hamlet.
He also became an outspoken critic of the US involvement in Vietnam and would later oppose the invasion of Iraq.
In 1961, he had a small part in a production of Arnold Wesker's Roots and made his Broadway debut as the comic valet in The Complaisant Lover.
His breakthrough came in 1963, when he starred alongside Anne Bancroft in a Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht's play, Mother Courage and Her Children.
Bancroft was then dating her future husband, Mel Brooks, who invited Wilder to look at a screenplay provisionally entitled Springtime for Hitler.
At the time, Brooks lacked the money to turn it into a film so, in the event, Wilder's first cinema role was that of Eugene Grizzard, the undertaker captured by Bonnie and Clyde in the 1967 gangster film.
A year later Brooks finally began casting The Producers. Wilder's role as the neurotic accountant brought him his first Oscar nomination in 1968, for Best Supporting Actor.
Wilder was liberated by the spontaneity of Brooks's direction and the pair enjoyed an extremely successful partnership.
In 1971, he gave a tour de force performance as Willy Wonka in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's novel.
Wilder stipulated that he would not take the role unless Wonka's opening scene saw him pretending to be crippled and leaning on a cane.
It became one of the film's most memorable moments as Wilder halts, tumbles forward then leaps back on to his feet.
"I knew that from then on," Wilder says, "the audience wouldn't know if I was lying or telling the truth."
In Woody Allen's 1972 comedy Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), Wilder played a doctor who was in love with a sheep.
Wilder was reunited with Brooks for the 1974 spoof Western Blazing Saddles, and the inspired lunacy of his trigger-happy Waco Kid, burnt out at 29, helped create a worldwide hit.
In the same year Young Frankenstein brought him and Brooks another Oscar nomination, this time for screenwriting.
He spoke of an almost "telepathic rapport" with Richard Pryor, and the comic duo blundered their way through a series of films, including Silver Streak in 1976 and Stir Crazy in 1980.
"I have an affinity with people who've had a tough time in their lives," he later said
When Pryor's ill health prevented his appearing again with Wilder in Hanky Panky in 1982, the part was rewritten for the doyenne of the Saturday Night Live line-up, Gilda Radner.
She became Wilder's third wife and occasional co-star, but died of ovarian cancer in May 1989.
Radner had been misdiagnosed for 10 months before receiving treatment and after her death and, for the next five years, Wilder channelled his energy into saving "the hundreds of other Gildas out there".
In 1990, he established a Los Angeles cancer detection centre in her name, and even went to Congress to speak out for early medical screening for women at risk. Gilda's Clubs sprang up all over America.
Wilder married again in 1991, and later returned to performing.
For two years, he starred in the NBC sitcom Something Wilder and, in 1996, made his London stage debut in Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
He continued to act, notably appearing as the Mock Turtle in a star-studded US TV version of Alice in Wonderland, but he was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the limelight.
"I don't like show business, I realised," he explained on a Turner Television tribute. "I like show, but I don't like the business."
He was scathing about 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Warner Bros remake of Willy Wonka, describing it as a money-making exercise.
The same year he published a very personal account of his life, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art.
Over the following seven years he published three novels, My French Whore, The Woman Who Wouldn't and, in 2013, Something to Remember You By: A Perilous Romance.
For all the vicissitudes he suffered in his personal life, the boy who kept his mother alive with his funny voices succeeded in conveying his own quirky brand of humour to millions of others.