One of the most iconic comedy actors of the last century, Gene Wilder was beloved throughout the industry upon his untimely death in 2016. Making his film debut in 1967s Bonnie and Clyde, his major cinematic breakthrough would come when he played the role of a nervous accountant, Leopold Bloom, in Mel Brooks’ film The Producers. The role would earn him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, allowing him to later co-write Young Frankenstein with Brooks, becoming a widely celebrated film of the 1970s.
Studying Communication and Theatre Arts at the University of Iowa, he would later be accepted at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England where he would learn the key skills of theatrical performance. Introduced to his famous collaborator Mel Brooks in 1963, the two struck up an immediate connection and Wilder was cast in a leading role in Mother Courage and Her Children, a production starring Brooks’ then-girlfriend Anne Bancroft.
Whilst he is widely celebrated for his role as the maniacal inventor Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and rightly so, he is an actor often overlooked for his multiple exemplary comedy roles. Therefore, let’s take a look into the very greatest performances of Gene Wilder, leaving his excellence in Willy Wonka to the realm of common knowledge.
Gene Wilder’s five best performances:
Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974)
Mel Brooks’ iconic spoof of the western genre is a comedy classic that follows the story of the hilarious community of a railroad town.
Determined to steal the land, the corrupt Hedley Lemarr (Harvey Korman) makes the town torrid and unbearable to live in, so as a result, a newly appointed black sheriff (Cleavon Little) challenges his authority.
Gene Wilder is a standout character in the classic comedy as the cool, calm, laid-back Waco Kid. Speaking to Rolling Stone decades after the original film, director Mel Brooks explained, “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,'” Brooks concluded.
The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1967)
A truly influential work of American comedy, Mel Brooks’ 1967 film features the story of a shady Broadway producer (Zero Mostel) who has fallen on hard times. Though when his accountant (Gene Wilder) convinces him they could make more money with a flop rather than a critical success, their luck is turned around and the show becomes wildly popular.
Earning his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, The Producers was his very first collaboration with Brooks, sparking a glowing co-dependent relationship for the two master creatives. Speaking to Indiewire about the casting of Wilder for the role, Brooks noted, “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”.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil (Arthur Hiller, 1989)
By no means one of Gene Wilder’s most intellectual performances, his role as Dave in the farcical See No Evil, Hear No Evil is a joy to behold. This high-concept comedy from Arthur Hiller follows Wilder alongside classic comedian Richard Pryor as two sensually impaired men who witness a murder.
Wilder’s Dave is deaf, whilst Pryor’s Wally is blind, with the story and comedy set pieces writing themselves after establishing such a promising premise. It’s a silly, farcical film that elicits the same feeling as Weekend at Bernie’s, released in the very same year. For a comedy, crime caper it’s certainly highly enjoyable, fueled by terrific performances from both Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, titans of cinematic comedy.
Silver Streak (Arthur Hiller, 1976)
Collaborating with both Richard Pryor and Arthur Hiller for the first time in their soon-to-be illustrious careers, Wilder stars as an overworked book editor who unwittingly becomes involved with a group of art forgers whilst on a train journey.
Teaming up with the car thief Grover Muldoon (Richard Pryor) the pair go about rescuing a kidnapped woman from the grasp of the same criminals. Speaking to Roger Ebert in 1976, Wilder stated, “What happened was, I was reading about Buster Keaton,” Wilder said.
Adding: “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”.
Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974)
Perhaps the actor’s greatest ever film role, Gene Wilder’s performance as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, a lecturing physician in an American medical school who learns that he has inherited his notorious grandfather, Victor’s castle.
Finding his diaries, Wilder’s Frederick Frankenstein attempts to recreate such experiments outlined by his grandfather, leading to disastrous results. Explaining to Wamu radio the director stated, “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”.
Continuing, he added, “And I think it was my fear of the Frankenstein movies when I was eight and nine and ten 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”.