Gene Wilder: A comic actor best known for quirky roles

Obituary: Wilder’s characters shone out in movies from ‘Willy Wonka’ to ‘The Producers’

Gene Wilder: June 11th, 1933-August 29th, 2016. Photograph: Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times

Gene Wilder: June 11th, 1933-August 29th, 2016. Photograph: Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times

 

Gene Wilder, who established himself as one of the US’s foremost comic actors with his delightfully neurotic performances in three films directed by Mel Brooks, his eccentric star turn in the family classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and his winning chemistry with Richard Pryor in the smash hit Stir Crazy, has died, aged 83.

Wilder’s rule for comedy was simple: don’t try to make it funny, try to make it real. “I’m an actor, not a clown,” he said more than once.

With his haunted blue eyes and an empathy born of his own history of psychic distress, he aspired to touch audiences much as Charlie Chaplin had. The Chaplin film City Lights, he said, had “made the biggest impression on me as an actor; it was funny, then sad, then both at the same time”.

Wilder was an accomplished stage actor as well as a screenwriter, a novelist and the director of four movies in which he starred.

He made his movie debut in 1967 in Arthur Penn’s celebrated crime drama Bonnie and Clyde, in which he was memorably hysterical as an undertaker kidnapped by the notorious Depression-era bank robbers played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.

A year later, he was even more hysterical, and even more memorable, as the security-blanket-clutching accountant Leo Bloom in The Producers, the first film by Brooks, who turned it into a Broadway hit.

Nomination

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

His next role was more adult but equally strange: an otherwise normal doctor who falls in love with a sheep named Daisy in a segment of Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, in 1972. Two years later, he reunited with Brooks for perhaps the two best-known entries in either man’s filmography: Blazing Saddles, followed by Young Frankenstein.

Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee on June 11th, 1933. His father, William, a manufacturer and salesman of novelty items, was an immigrant from Russia. His mother, the former Jeanne Baer, suffered from rheumatic heart disease and a temperament that sometimes led her to punish young Jerry angrily and then smother him with regretful kisses.

In his first major role on Broadway, Wilder played the chaplain in a 1963 production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. The production ran for less than two months, but, through it, he met the boyfriend of the star, Anne Bancroft: Mel Brooks,

Wilder’s association with Brooks led in turn to one with Richard Pryor, who was one of the writers of Blazing Saddles, Wilder and Pryor went on to star in the 1982 hit Stir Crazy, as well as See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991).

Wilder’s first two marriages, to Mary Mercier and Mary Joan Schutz, ended in divorce. In 1982, he met the Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner when they were both cast in the suspense comedy Hanky Panky. One evening, he recalled in Kiss Me Like a Stranger (the memoir he published in 2005), he and Radner innocently ended up at his hotel to review some script changes. The time came for her to go; instead she shoved him down on the bed, jumped on top of him and announced: “I have a plan for fun!”

He sent her home anyway – she was married to another man – but before long they began a relationship.

Married

He left, only to find he needed to go back. Radner died in 1989. “I had one great blessing: I was so dumb,” Wilder once said of her last years. “I believed even three weeks before she died she would make it.”

In memory of Radner, he helped to found an ovarian cancer detection centre in her name, in Los Angeles, and a network of support centres for women with cancer.

Wilder himself developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1999. With chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant, he was in remission by 2005.

In 1991, Wilder married Karen Boyer, a hearing specialist who had coached him in the filming of See No Evil, Hear No Evil, in which his character was deaf. She survives him, as does a daughter from an earlier marriage. His sister died in January.