A tribute to the life and work of Gene Wilder
Eyes that sparkle
When Gene Wilder portrayed the titular role in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it was like magic. With a persona that exudes equal parts charm and mystery with that twinkle in his eye, Wilder's Willy Wonka is hard to forget. The character in Roald Dahl's books was a bit of a strange genius—creative, no doubt, but with a subtly sinister edge beneath the cheery demeanour, and Wilder brought him to life with the perfect amount of eccentricity. His dedication to his craft was admirable, and he was the sort who would have an input where he saw suit:
"(On Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) I thought the script was very good, but something was missing. I wanted to come out with a cane, come down slowly, have it stick into one of the bricks, get up, fall over, roll around, and they all laugh and applaud. The director asked, 'What do you want to do that for?' I said because from that time on, no one will know if I'm lying or telling the truth."
Gene Wilder (real name Jerome Silberman) first got involved in acting in off-screen productions, his first professional acting job being Herbert Berghof's production of Twelfth Night. In 1963, he was cast in the leading role of Mother Courage and Her Children. This is where he was introduced to Mel Brooks, then boyfriend of castmate Anne Bancroft, starting a work relationship that saw Wilder eventually starring in three of the veteran director's films.
He made his on-screen debuts in Death of a Salesman and Bonnie and Clyde, before landing his first major role in a feature film—Mel Brooks' The Producers. He played anxious, scheming accountant Leo Bloom, whose plans to make money on a bad Broadway show hilariously backfires (not exactly in a bad way) on him. The film became a cult comedy classic, and Wilder was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
He went on to star in two more Mel Brooks films—Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein—both released in 1974, and both memorable works in the two stars' impressive repertoires. Wilder also formed a working relationship that spawned four films with comedy partner Richard Pryor, starring in Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You together—the latter two written and directed by Wilder.
Gene Wilder was selective about his work, having worked on 22 films in his lifetime—not a lot, considering his career lifespan. He appeared sporadically on television, lighting up the screen wherever he goes. After he closed that chapter in his life, he turned to writing. His memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art was published in 2005, and a number of fictional works followed.
Despite hiccups at the start, it seemed that he finally found his happy ending outside of work towards his later years. Wilder's first two marriages ended in divorce. His third marriage was to comedian Gilda Radner, who sadly died of ovarian cancer five years after they were married. After her death, he co-founded the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Centre and the support groub Gilda's Club. He was last married to speech therapist Karen Boyer, whom he met while preparing for his role as a deaf man in See No Evil, Hear No Evil. The two married in 1991 and lived in their home Stamford, Connecticut. In one of his last public appearances, they were seen attending the US Open together. Although he looked frail, he chose to keep his disease a secret simply because he "couldn't bear the idea of one less smile in the world", as we learned from an official statement released by his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman after his death. He also shared how the comedic actor lived his last years:
"He continued to enjoy art, music, and kissing with his leading lady of the last 25 years, Karen. He danced down a church aisle at a wedding as parent of the groom and ring-bearer, held countless afternoon movie western marathons and delighted at the company of beloved ones.
He was 83 and passed holding out hands with the same tenderness and love he exhibited as long as I can remember. As our hands clutched and he performed one last breath the music speaker, which was set to random, began to blare out one of his favourites: Ella Fitzgerald. There is a picture of he and Ella meeting at a London Bistro some years ago that are among each or cherished possessions. She was singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow as he was taken away.
'We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dream.'
Gene Wilder's Pure Imagination will forever remain as one of my firm favourites from a musical film, and it is safe to say many others share the same sentiments. Judging from the outpour of tributes from peers and admirers since news of his passing broke—he certainly will be missed.
- Image: Getty Images
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