There are few people to whom "comedic genius" is a worthy and apt description. Gene Wilder was one of those. The Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning writer and actor passed away today at the age of 83 from complications from Alzheimer's.
To people of late Gen X and the Millennial generation, Wilder is remembered fondly as Willy Wonka, immortalized in that fiendish sarcastic meme. It was Wilder's portrayal of Wonka that will likely loom most largely in the hearts of those of us of a certain age, for whom childhood included the soundtrack of Wilder singing "Pure Imagination" and teaching us an early important lesson: "Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker." Wilder brought a sense of mischief and danger to the character in a film that was originally a box office flop. Social media is absolutely awash in Willy Wonka quotes-- and not from Johnny Depp or the book, either.
"We are the music makers. And we are the dreamers of dreams."
But as large as Wonka looms, Wilder was so much more. His collaborations with both Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor are equally legendary. Wilder was twice nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe-- for Best Supporting Actor in The Producers, Best Adapted Screenplay for Young Frankenstein, and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for Wonka and Silver Streak. He also later won an Emmy for playing Will's boss on Will and Grace.
Mel Brooks and Wilder first met when Wilder was starring in a play with Anne Bancroft, Brooks' future wife and then-girlfriend. Promising to eventually work together, that plan came together with The Producers, which was Wilder's first starring role. They would go on to collaborate on the (in my opinion) two best Mel Brooks movies Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, both of which came out in the same year.
In all, Wilder starred in four films with Richard Pryor. Silver Streak remains a prime example of Wilder's best work, pioneering the concept for the buddy-action-comedy that would later be played over and over through the 80's and 90's. Following this up was Stir Crazy, which is similarly amazing. Unfortunately Another You and See No Evil, Hear No Evil had Pryor and Wilder and a thin premise, but no real magic other than just the presence of two comedic titans.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil remains interesting for the single reason that Wilder met his future wife Karen Boyer on set, as she taught him to read lips. They were married in 1991 and remained together until his death. Prior to that, Wilder was previously married to Gilda Radner until her death from ovarian cancer. They first met while he was filming Hanky Panky, and would later appear together in Haunted Honeymoon and The Lady in Red, both of which Wilder wrote and directed. After Radner's death, Wilder spent much of his time and money supporting causes related to ovarian cancer, including founding Gilda's Club, a support group for ovarian cancer sufferers, and the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles.
Comedian. Writer. Actor. Director. Humanitarian. Gene Wilder was truly a legend. This week's essential viewing playlist is Willy Wonka, Silver Streak, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Stir Crazy.
UPDATE: Wilder's nephew has posted a letter surrounding his uncle's last hours and the last few years. This is truly beautiful and worth your time.