“On stage or in the movies I could do whatever I wanted to. I was free.”—Gene Wilder
American actor Gene Wilder was one of the most iconic comedy actors of the last century. He made his debut in 1967 film Bonny and Clyde but his major breakthrough came when he played the role of a nervous accountant, Leopold Bloom, in Mel Brooks’ film The Producers which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He also co-wrote Young Frankenstein (1974) with Brooks, garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Wilder studied Communication and Theatre Arts at the University of Iowa, after which he was accepted at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England. His first professional acting job was the role of Second Officer in Herbert Berghof’s production of Twelfth Night. He was introduced to his famous collaborator Mel Brooks in 1963, was cast in a leading role in Mother Courage and Her Children, a production starring Anne Bancroft (Brooks’ girlfriend at the time).
Here, we reflect on some of his greatest performances as a tribute to one of the leading acting talents of his time.
Gene Wilder’s 10 Best Films:
10. The Frisco Kid (Robert Aldrich – 1979)
Five years after Blazing Saddles, Wilder starred in another Western as Avram Belinski, a Polish rabbi who finished at the bottom of his yeshiva class and comes to America to deliver a Torah to a synagogue in San Francisco. He is befriended by bank robber Tommy Lillard (played by Harrison Ford) who helps him get over the obstacles in his journey.
“A comedy with a difference. The screenplay has been around for seven years,” Wilder said. “Everybody has always agreed that it was a brilliant story, but nobody could figure out what kind of a story it was. A comedy? An adventure? A Western? It’s set in the 1850s, and I play a rabbi from Poland who finishes 37th out of a class of 38.”
9. Start The Revolution Without Me (Bud Yorkin – 1970)
Set in the era of the French Revolution, Wilder and Donald Sutherland star in Bud Yorkin’s period comedy as two sets of identical twins who are switched at birth — the twins born to a noble family are given to a peasant couple and vice versa. However, when the possibility of being guillotined starts to materialize, the newly noble twins are caught in a twisted game of fate. Sutherland and Wilder form a great team who indulge in juvenile antics despite the gravity of the times.
Wilder thought of it as a great film that didn’t quite come off, “It had three great scenes, and two or three very good scenes, and the people who love the movie love those scenes. Then it had two good scenes, and six or seven scenes that just didn’t work.”
8. Stir Crazy (Sidney Poitier – 1980)
Poitier’s crime comedy paired Wilder and Pryor again, as a film writer and an actor (respectively), who get framed for a bank robbery that they did not commit. The warden of the prison has an intense rivalry with another warden, and they bet on the outcome of rodeos that the inmates participate in.
Wilder turns out to be a “natural cowboy” and makes plans regarding a prison escape with Pryor. Their on-screen chemistry is wonderful and the film was a huge success. Sidney Poitier became the first black director to make a film that grossed over $100 million.
7. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (Woody Allen – 1972)
Woody Allen’s film adaptation of Dr. David Ruben’s non-fiction best-seller stars Wilder as physician Dr. Ross. His new Armenian patient Stavros Milos (played by Titos Vandis) confesses that he has fallen in love with his sheep Daisy. It takes Dr. Ross a full 25 seconds to react and say “Oh, I see.” However, Wilder himself falls in love with the sheep when he goes to see it.
Allen asks seven questions about sex by connecting seven fragments of unrelated stories. The bestiality references in the film were initially censored in some places but the ban was eventually lifted.
6. Bonnie And Clyde (Arthur Penn – 1967)
Arthur Penn’s 1967 biographical film about the notorious lovers/bandits Bonnie and Clyde marked Wilder’s amazing debut. As undertaker Eugene Grizzard, he and his girlfriend Velma Davis (played by Evans Evans) are abducted by Bonnie (played by Faye Dunaway) and Clyde (played by Warren Beatty). When Bonnie and Clyne learn that Eugene is an undertaker, Bonnie gets suspicious and orders them out.
In a 24 Aug 1997 LAT interview about the making of Bonnie and Clyde, David Newman and Robert Benton (the writers) revealed that the detailed, seventy-five-page treatment was heavily inspired by the works of French New Wave filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. They wrote it in late 1963 while working for Esquire magazine.
5. Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart – 1971)
Although Mel Stuart’s famous adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book was initially propositioned as a children’s film, it turned out to be such a nuanced work that it attracts children and adults alike. Wilder’s performance as Willy Wonka has become one of his most famous roles and it even earned him his first Best Actor nomination for a Golden Globe Award.
While speaking about the film, Wilder said, “I thought the script was very good, but something was missing. I wanted to come out with a cane, come down slowly, have it stick into one of the bricks, get up, fall over, roll around, and they all laugh and applaud. The director asked, ‘what do you want to do that for?’ I said from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”
4. Silver Streak (Arthur Hiller – 1976)
The first pairing of Wilder and Richard Pryor, Hiller’s action-comedy stars Wilder as an overworked book editor who unwittingly gets involved with a group of art forgers while on a train ride from LA to Chicago. Wilder teams up with car thief Grover Muldoon (Richard Pryor) to rescue a kidnapped woman from the criminals on the train and save the day.
“What happened was, I was reading about Buster Keaton,” Wilder said. “About how he did all his own stunts. Like the time he had to stand in exactly the right place for the two-ton building to fall on him and he was right where the window was. So then we were making Silver Streak and there we were doing our own stunts.”
In the same interview, Pryor confirmed Wilder’s claim, “That was really him. That was really him hanging out and me hanging onto his belt. And that was really a train going 50 miles an hour.”
3. Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks – 1974)
Brooks’ Old Western is a comedy classic which follows the story of the hilarious community of a railroad town. Determined to steal the land, the corrupt Hedley Lemarr (played by Harvey Korman) makes the town unliveable. A newly appointed black sheriff (Cleavon Little) challenges his authority. Wilder is fantastic as the laid-back Waco Kid.
“Ever since we had done The Producers, Gene was my best friend. So he knew I’d cast Gig Young as the Waco Kid; Gig had won the Oscar for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, so he was considered a dramatic actor,” Brooks recalled.
“Then we have the first day of shooting, he literally started throwing up green stuff all over the set. I thought, ‘We aren’t shooting The Exorcist, are we? I think something’s wrong here.’ I sent him to the hospital, and called Gene in tears. I heard him sigh over the phone: I know, Mel, I’m the Waco Kid, you need me, I’ll be there.’”
2. The Producers (Mel Brooks – 1967)
Mel Brooks’ 1967 comedy features the story of a shady Broadway producer (played by Zero Mostel) who has fallen on hard times. His timid accountant, Leo Bloom (played by Wilder), convinces him that they could make more money with a flop than a hit, taking off with the investment money. However, things go awry when the show actually becomes popular. Wilder earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for this role.
“I found Gene Wilder, who was in a Bertolt Brecht play, Mother Courage and Her Children, with Anne Bancroft [in 1963], who I was dating,” said Brooks. “He was a funny-looking guy and the three of us met for a cup of coffee after one of the shows.
“He was frustrated because they were laughing and he didn’t know why. I told him to look at himself in the mirror. He was touching and funny and I found my eloquent, beautiful, [timid] accountant, Leo Bloom.”
1. Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks – 1974)
Wilder stars as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, a lecturing physician in an American medical school, who travels to Transylvania because he learns that he has inherited his notorious grandfather, Victor’s castle. He finds his grandfather’s diaries and tries to recreate his grandfather’s experiments.
Wilder revealed, “When I was a little boy, I was scared to death of the Frankenstein film – films, actually, because there were four of them in particular that influenced me. And in all these years later, I wanted it to come out with a happy ending.”
He added, “And I think it was my fear of the Frankenstein movies when I was 8 and 9 and 10 years old that made me want to write that story that I was a young doctor or dental hygienist and found out that my great grandfather Beaufort von Frankenstein left me the whole estate. That was all I had in mind at the time.”