Celebrating Wilder’s legacy of pure imagination

By Hania Jones

Gene Wilder dies at 83
1974 staff file photo from the set of Young Frankenstein. From left: Teri Garr, Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Mel Brooks and Peter Boyle as Young Frankenstein. (File Photos/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

A crowd of children surrounds the outside of the Wonka Chocolate Factory. They’re waiting for Willy Wonka, who comes out limping with cane in tow.

When Wonka approaches the crowd, he surprises them by doing a perfect somersault. The crowd claps and cheers in awe of his theatrics.

“Thank you,” Wonka says. “Welcome, friends, welcome to my chocolate factory.”

Gene Wilder, who played the chocolatier in the memorable movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), passed away on Aug 29. He delighted and mesmerized fans in many comedic gems, such as Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), and The Producers (1967).

Born Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1935, in Milwaukee, Wis. to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Wilder found the funny at the age of 7 after his mother, Jeanne, suffered a heart attack.

“The doctor changed my life dramatically,” said Wilder in an interview with Biography in 1999. “He told me to make her laugh. So I did my version of Danny Kaye anti Sid Caesar, my idol.”

According to the 1999 Biography interview, Wilder took an interest in acting when he had seen his sister, Corinne performing in a recital at age 11. However, the revelation to pursue acting came to Wilder when he was 16 years old.

“In those days I was thinking more in terms of being a comedian,” said Wilder, in an interview with Terry Gross in 2005 for Fresh Air radio program. “I started studying acting at 13. But when I saw Death of a Salesman at 16, it changed my whole conception of acting and performing. I didn’t want to be a comedian. I wanted to be an actor — maybe a comic actor, but a real actor — by real, I mean not a comedian. I wanted to be an actor.”

Wilder studied and earned a degree in theater at the University of Iowa in 1955. By 1961, Wilder had already joined the Actors Studio in New York City with famed Lee Strasberg as his teacher, according to Biography magazine.

Wilder’s biography on imbd.com states his early career consisted of him performing in Broadway and off-Broadway productions such as Andrew Wesker’s Roots (1961), The Complaissant Lover (1961), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1963), and Luv (1966). Wilder’s first encounter with Mel Brooks was when he starred in Mother Courage and Her Children, with Brooks’ then girlfriend and future wife, Anne Brancroft.

“And after we saw each other several times, Brooks said, ‘Would you like to come to Fire Island and spend the weekend with Anne and me? I’d like to read the first 30 pages of this movie I’m writing called Springtime for Hitler,’” Wilder told Gross.

Wilder went there one June weekend and read Brooks’ first 30 pages of what was later called The Producers and accepted the role of Leo Bloom, the shy accountant that found the goldmine in movie flops.

Though Wilder’s acting debut was in the role of an undertaker abducted by the famous outlaws in the selftitled, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Producers (1967) is what established his career as a film actor.

Wilder then starred in many other Brooks’ movies, such as Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974). According to Premiere magazine’s 100 Greatest Movie Performances of All Time, Gene Wilder’s performance in Young Frankenstein (1974) is ranked at number nine.

Young Frankenstein is as funny as we expect a Mel Brooks comedy to be,” said famed movie critic Roger Ebert. “But it’s more than that: it shows artistic growth and a more sure-handed control of the material by a director who once seemed willing to do literally anything for a laugh. It’s more confident and less breathless.”

This is what made Wilder’s movies so classic and timeless. The movies that Wilder starred in were so refreshingly funny that they are able to appeal to generations today.

For instance, Young Frankenstein (1974) includes a scene wherein both Dr. Frankenstein, played by Wilder and the monster, played by Peter Boyle, perform “Puttin’ On The Ritz.”

It is such a wonderful scene because the purpose of it is to show that Dr. Frankenstein’s monster is a friend rather than a foe to townspeople, but the way it is exhibited makes it more hilarious. Who would’ve imagined a doctor and monster doing a show time number?

What I also liked most about Wilder’s acting and comedy was how he was always so calm and collected while he was delivering his humor. He was neither zany nor over-the-top with his delivery, but still manages to be outrageous and humorous.

As a case in point, in Blazing Saddles (1970), Wilder plays the carefree, drunken Waco Kid. The way he tells Sheriff Bart, played by Cleavon Little, that he “must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille” and “started to hear the word ‘draw’ in my sleep” is funny because Wilder is so serious with his deliverance.

In fact, it is almost believable until he tells the sheriff that he got shot by a 6-year-old in the rear and that is why he is no longer the Waco Kid.

And who could forget his memorable role as the eccentric chocolatier, Willy Wonka? A character that has touched many old and new generations alike.

As fans mourn the loss of Wilder’s death, they remember the legacy and the laughs that he brought into their lives. On social media, fans have been vocal about how much Wilder meant to them.

“Gene Wilder brought the world so much laughter,” said Christy Cahill on the Gene Wilder Facebook Page.

“Brilliantly funny man,” Paul Anthony said. “I can’t ever forget his roles as Jim (The Waco Kid) in Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. A hugely talented human.”

As Willy Wonka said: “Time is a precious thing…never waste it.”

Contact Hania Jones at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu