Hollywood comic actor Gene Wilder dies aged 83

Solid political liberal who worked hard for charities dies after Alzheimer’s complication

Gene Wilder, one of cinema's great neurotics, has died of complications from Alzheimer's disease at the age of 83. Wilder had worked only erratically since the death of his wife Gilda Radner, also a gifted comic actor, of cancer in 1989.

But he will be held in great esteem for two decades of comedy classics, beginning with Mel Brooks’s The Producers in 1968.

Wilder secured his place in Irish cinema history as the star of Waris Hussein’s 1970 comedy Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx. In that film, Wilder played a Dublin dung collector who fell for Margot Kidder’s US exchange student.

Like so many of his contemporaries in comedy, Wilder came from a Jewish background. Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he took the name Gene Wilder in honour of a character from Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and of the playwright Thornton Wilder.

Following a trying time at military school – he later revealed he had been sexually abused – Wilder moved to England to train at the Bristol Old Vic before returning home to study at the Herbert Berghof Studio in New York city.

His career was interrupted by conscription into the medical corps, but, by 1963, he was playing opposite Anne Bancroft in a production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. It was through Bancroft, Mel Brooks’s wife, that he made the most important connection of his career.

Durable persona

Wilder took a small but significant role in Arthur Penn’s groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde in 1967.

It was, however, The Producers that finally announced the durable Wilder on-screen persona.

Unlike, say, Woody Allen, Wilder did not play the same character in every film. Leopold Bloom (another Irish connection there), the misused accountant in The Producers, was nervous to the point of psychosis.

The title character of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) had a positively sinister confidence.

Wilder’s version of a Frankenstein descendant in Brooks’s Young Frankenstein was a smooth charmer whose cool shattered only when students failed to pronounce his name “Fronkensteen”.

Yet all these characters shared an unsettling otherworldliness that was very much Wilder’s own. A wandering eye was forever perusing some mystery just over the viewer’s left shoulder.

The partnership with Brooks led to a string of successes including Blazing Saddles, Silver Streak and Stir Crazy.

He seemed to lose his passion for the business when Radner died, but Wilder’s best films have aged not a second since their initial release.

A solid political liberal, who worked hard for cancer charities, Wilder is survived by his fourth wife Karen Boyer.

One can say no kinder thing of a comic performer than he was unlike anybody else.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist