Gene Wilder, who passed away August 29 after fighting Alzheimer’s, was known for playing appealingly quirky comedic characters. For one of his most iconic roles, as Willy Wonka in 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” he sang the song “Pure Imagination.” The opening lyrics (by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley) mirror Wilder’s contribution to American film: “Come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination…”
From his first on-screen bit part as a nervous undertaker taken hostage by outlaws in 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” to his comedic teamings with director Mel Brooks and comic Richard Pryor, Wilder brought front and center characters that in less talented hands might have been overlooked.
After graduating from the University of Iowa, Wilder trained at England’s Old Vic Theatre School then returned to New York to study at the Actors Studio. A stage role brought him to the attention of up and coming writer/ director Mel Brooks, resulting in Wilder’s first film lead in Brooks’ original “The Producers.” Wilder’s portrayal of Leo Bloom, an accountant driven hysteric by the underhanded machinations of his Broadway producer boss (played to perfection by Zero Mostel), resulted in Wilder receiving a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
For “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Wilder starred as a chocolatier who doesn’t suffer spoiled children (or their parents) lightly. Scripted by Roald Dahl, author of the children’s book on which the film is based, the movie musical made Wonka a central figure in the action. Wilder managed to bring a twinkle to his character’s eye even as gluttonous Augustus Gloop was sucked into the factory pipes and gum smacking Violet Beauregard literally swelled into a blueberry.
Actor Peter Ostrum who starred as young Charlie Bucket opposite Wilder in “Wonka” recalled, “He (Wilder) never let on how he was going to read a line or convey an expression. That’s why the film works, because he made Wonka so unpredictable.” In 2005, Johnny Depp inhabited the role of Wonka in Tim Burton’s interpretation of Dahl’s book. Like Wilder, Depp has made a career of playing unconventional characters. But, Depp’s Wonka lacks the warmth of Wilder’s original.
1974 brought two collaborations for Wilder and Brooks- the hilarious spoof on Westerns, “Blazing Saddles,” and their tribute to classic monster movies, “Young Frankenstein.” Their “Frankenstein” screenplay earned them an Oscar nomination. As title character Frederick Frankenstein, Wilder brought an earnest sincerity to a scientist who insists his surname is pronounced “Fronk-en-steen” and who futilely tries to resist the family legacy of reanimating dead bodies. Playing off Wilder’s Frankenstein were characters including Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman) whose name strikes terror in horses; Igor (Marty Feldman) who thinks the brain labeled abnormal reads “Abby Normal;” and the monster (Peter Boyle) who learns to tap dance to “Putting on the Ritz.” When asked about working with Wilder, Leachman recalled, “Gene was in a class by himself.”
His work with Brooks inspired Wilder to continue writing and to try directing. His most successful work as a director was 1984’s “The Woman in Red.” His films with comic Richard Pryor – “Silver Streak” (1976), “Stir Crazy” (1980), “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” (1989), and “Another You” (1991)– won over audiences. Wilder’s characters held their own opposite Pryor’s own brand of in-your-face humor and improvisation.
In the early 1980s, Wilder met comedienne Gilda Radner of “Saturday Night Live” fame. The two married in 1984, with Radner commenting that after marrying Wilder, “My life went from black and white to Technicolor.” Sadly, in 1986 Radner learned she had advanced ovarian cancer. Her passing in 1989 at age 42 profoundly affected Wilder. Her multiple misdiagnoses spurred him to testify before a House subcommittee in 1991. In 1995, Wilder co-founded Gilda’s Club, a cancer support network for patients and their families.
After Radner’s death, Wilder’s screen appearances lessened, although he did star for one season in “Something Wilder” for NBC. In 2003, he was awarded the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor for his appearance as Mr. Stein on the hit sitcom “Will and Grace.”
After learning he had Alzheimer’s, Wilder kept his diagnosis private out of respect for fans, especially young children who loved Wonka. According to his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, “The decision to wait until this time (Wilder’s passing) to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity…he simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.” Such thoughtfulness is characteristic of the actor who made a career of bringing happiness to his audience.