Friday, September 2, 2016

Gene Wilder: In Memoriam

A Little Nonsense Now and Then is Relished By the Wisest Men

By Ed Garea

Gene Wilder, the frizzy-haired comic star best known for his work with Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor, died August 29 at his home in Stamford, Conn., from Alzheimer's disease complications. He was 83. 

Twice Oscar nominated, for his role in “The Producers” and for writing “Young Frankenstein” with Mel Brooks, Wilder was known in his films for playing a neurotic who frequently went from total hysteria to dewy-eyed tenderness, and back again, according to Variety. He told Time magazine in a 1970 interview, “My quiet exterior used to be a mask for hysteria. After seven years of analysis, it just became a habit.”

Wilder was the proverbial success story. He was born Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933, in Milwaukee, Wisc. His father, William J. Silberman, was a Russian Jewish immigrant who manufactured and sold novelty items like miniature beer and whiskey bottles. His mother, Jeanne (Baer), was diagnosed with rheumatic fever when Wilder was 8 years old. Her doctor told the young Wilder that if he directed anger toward his emotionally fragile mother, it might kill her. From the hours he spent trying to make her laugh, he developed an interest in theater. 

At the age of 11, he saw his sister, who was studying acting at the time, perform onstage. Totally fascinated by what he saw, he asked her teacher if he could become his student. The teacher replied that if he was still interested when he turned 13, he would take him on as a student. The day after he turned 13, Wilder called the teacher and was accepted. He studied under the teacher for two years. 

But when his mother felt that her son was not fully reaching his potential in Wisconsin, she sent him to Black-Foxe, a military school in Hollywood. His stay there was not a pleasant one; he was bullied and sexually assaulted, mainly because he was the only Jewish boy in the school. Wilder returned home and became involved with the local theater community, performing for the first time to a paying audience at age 15 as Balthasar in a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  

After graduating from Milwaukee’s Washington High School in 1951, Wilder continued his education at the University of Iowa, studying communications and theater arts. After graduating in 1955, he spent a year at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England, where, in addition to acting classes, he also took up fencing, winning the all-school fencing championship, according to Variety.

On September 10, 1956, Wilder was drafted into the Army, where he was assigned to the medical corps and sent to Fort Sam Houston for training. After training, he was given the opportunity to choose any post that was open. Wanting to stay near New York City to attend acting classes at Herbert Berghof’s HB Studio (and later at the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg, where he studied “the Method”), he chose to serve as paramedic in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology in Phoenixville, Pa. 

In November 1957, his mother died from ovarian cancer. After his discharge from the Army, he returned to New York on a full-time scholarship from the HB Studio, supporting himself as a limo driver and fencing instructor. 

Feeling that Jerry Silberman did not have the right ring, he decided to adopt a stage name, and chose “Gene Wilder.” “Gene” from Thomas Wolfe’s first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, and “Wilder” in honor of Thornton Wilder, whom he admired. 

Wilder made his professional debut in the Off-Broadway play Roots in 1961, followed by a stay on Broadway in Graham Greene’s comedy The Complaisant Lover, according to Variety. He won the Clarence Derwent Award as promising newcomer for this role. His performance in the 1963 production of Brecht’s Mother Courage with star Anne Bancroft was seen by her future husband Mel Brooks. A few months later, Brooks told Wilder that he was working on a screenplay called Springtime for Hitler, and Wilder would be perfect in the role of Leo Bloom. Brooks had Wilder promise him that he would check before making any long-term commitments.

Meanwhile, Wilder continued to work in the theater, acting in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1963 and Dynamite Tonight and The White House in 1964. Afterward he understudied Alan Arkin and Gabriel Dell in Luv, eventually taking over the role. 

Wilder also worked in television, appearing in “The Sound of Hunting,” “The Interrogators,” and “Windfall” for The DuPont Show of the Week in 1962. In 1966, he appeared in the TV production of Death of a Salesman with Lee J. Cobb. He would later star in TV movies, including The Scarecrow (1972), Acts of Love and Other Comedies (1973), and Thursday’s Game (1974).

In 1967, Wilder made his film debut in a minor but memorable role as Eugene Grizzard in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). And after three years of not hearing from Brooks, Wilder was called to read with Zero Mostel, who had approval of his co-star in Brooks’ upcoming Springtime for Hitler. Wilder was cast as the neurotic accountant Leo Bloom in the feature film, now retitled The Producers (1967). His performance earned him an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. 

He next starred in a dual role with Donald Sutherland in Bud Yorkin’s disappointing Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), a comedy set during the French Revolution, where he got a chance to display his fencing abilities. It was followed by another middling comedy, Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (also 1970).

In 1971, he auditioned for and won the role of Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s classic that became one of his most beloved characters. Though the film was not an immediate hit, it has gained a cult following over the years, especially with children. It's a magic film filled with dream and nightmare scenarios. So many of Wilder's line still remain well known such as "A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men."

Wilder followed this with a role in one segment of Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) in 1973. The film was a solid hit, with a domestic gross of $18 million against a $2 million budget.

After finishing filming, he began work on a script he called Young Frankenstein. After finishing a two-page scenario, he called Mel Brooks, who told him it sounded like “a cute idea,” but otherwise showed little interest. Meanwhile, Wilder was offered the part of The Fox in Stanley Donen’s musical adaptation of Saint Exupery’s classic The Little Prince. But right before filming was to begin in London, Wilder received an emergency call from Mel Brooks, who needed someone to play The Waco Kid in his Western parody, Blazing Saddles, after Dan Dailey dropped out at the last moment and Gig Young had to be hospitalized during filming. After the picture finished, Wilder returned to London and filmed The Little Prince.

After Blazing Saddles became a huge hit, Wilder and Brooks began co-writing Young Frankenstein. Wilder always defined his role with Brooks as to “make him more subtle, while his job was to make me more broad.” But there was an instance were Wilder was the Brooks-type and Brooks the Wilder-type while writing the movie. Wilder had an idea where he (Dr. Frankenstein) and the monster would tap dance together to “Puttin' On the Ritz.” Brooks was strongly against the idea, claiming it went too far, but after a test audience reacted with howls of laughter, Brooks relented and the scene went into the movie. 

The rights to Young Frankenstein were to be sold to Columbia, but after having trouble agreeing on the budget, Wilder, Brooks, and producer Michael Gruskoff signed with 20th Century Fox, where both Brooks and Wilder had to sign five-year contracts. Young Frankenstein was a commercial hit, with Wilder and Brooks receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The experience of working with Brooks encouraged Wilder to write and direct his own comedies. The first of these was The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975), in which he included such Brooks regulars as Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman. It wasn't a critical or commercial hit. 

In 1975, Wilder's agent sent him a script for a film called Super Chief. Wilder accepted, but told the film's producers that he thought the only person who could keep the film from being offensive was Richard Pryor. Pryor accepted the role in the film, now renamed Silver Streak, and the two became Hollywood’s first interracial comedy duo.  

Wilder’s next project was The World’s Greatest Lover, inspired by Fellini’s The White Sheik, from 1952. He wrote, produced, and directed the film, which premiered in 1977, but it was a critical failure. This was followed by The Frisco Kid (1979), a Western comedy that was originally to have starred John Wayne, but Wayne dropped out and was replaced by the up-and-coming Harrison Ford. It fared no better than its predecessor. 

Wilder rebounded with Stir Crazy (1980), again starring Richard Pryor. directed by Sidney Poitier, it was an even bigger hit than Silver Streak, grossing more than $100 million. However, two more Wilder-Pryor pairings, See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991) provided diminishing returns. 

While filming Hanky Panky in 1982 for director Poitier, Wilder met and fell in love with Saturday Night Live comedienne Gilda Radner. She became his third wife shortly thereafter. Wilder and Radner co-starred in his most successful directing project, The Woman in Red (1984) as well as Haunted Honeymoon (1986), according to Variety. But Radner grew ill with ovarian cancer. He devoted himself to her care, working sporadically after that and hardly at all after her death in 1989. Her death led him, becoming actively involved in promoting cancer awareness and treatment. He helped create the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles and Gilda’s Club. Also in 1989 Wilder was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, another factor that caused him to slow down his working pace. 

In 1994, he starred in the failed TV series Something Wilder for NBC. In 1999, he wrote and starred in the two A&E mystery telepics The Lady in Question and Murder in a Small Town. He also appeared as the Mock Turtle in NBC’s 1999 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. His last acting stint was as Mr. Stein in a couple of episodes of Will and Grace in 2002-03, for which he won an Emmy.

In 2005, Wilder turned to writing, penning a memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art. Afterward he wrote fiction: the novels My French Whore (2007) and The Woman Who Wouldn’t (2008); a collection of stories, What Is This Thing Called Love? (2010); and the novella Something to Remember You By: A Perilous Romance (2013). Wilder is survived by his fourth wife Karen Boyer, whom he married in 1991, and his nephew.

Before Radner, Wilder was married to actress-playwright Mary Mercier and Mary Joan Schutz.

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