Peter Travers pays tribute to the comic actor whose candy-men and Seventies kooks consistently cracked us up
Gene Wilder made it impossible not to laugh. Sometimes it’s as simple as that — a gift that keeps on giving. So even as we mourn Wilder’s death at 83 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, we remember that talent he had for reducing us to helpless giggles.
How did he do it, this bullied Jewish kid, Jerome Silberman, from Milwaukee, the son of a Russian immigrant father and a mother who thought military school was a good idea for her sensitive son? In the army, he served as an aide in a psychiatric unit, putting him in close contact with the madness he would later turn into comic gold.
No one did hysteria like Wilder. It started slowly then built to a crescendo of raw terror. Even in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, an iconic performance that grows in nuance the more you see it, Wilder gave us a Candy Man with a barely concealed contempt for the selfish brats he invited to his factory. You simply do not forget the delicious impurity of his smile when the gluttonous Augustus Gloop nearly drowns in a river of chocolate and his mother demands that Wonka, do something. “Help. Police. Murder.” — he says the words in a delicious, deadpan whisper. It’s the essence of Dahl and pure Wilder, a comic wizard who brings the joke so close to reality he actually scares you.
Wilder gravitated first to drama, studying at the Actors Studio and longing to create something real. Then he met Mel Brooks. In 1963, Wilder was playing the chaplain on Broadway in Mother Courage and Her Children, starring Brooks’ soon-to-be wife Anne Bancroft. She introduced them and something clicked. Brooks thought Wilder would be perfect to play the mousy, nervous and fearful accountant who was given to panic attacks he can only subdue by chewing on a childhood security blanket. When Max mocks him, Leo screams the words “fat, fat, fatty.” And in that moment a star is born. His slow build to frenzy is priceless.
Wilder would work with Brooks again in the 1974 smash Blazing Saddles, playing a whisky-addled, shaky-handed gunfighter (a riff on Dean Martin’s alcoholic cowpoke in Rio Bravo), but their peak as collaborators would happen that same year in Young Frankenstein, in which Wilder played the grandson of the original creator of the mad monster. To hear Wilder scream, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” is one of the unalloyed joys of movie comedy. Both Brooks and Wilder would work separately after that, but never with the same impact. The actor brought discipline to the filmmaker’s unleashed bravado. It’s one of the reasons their work together still resonates strongly today.
Wilder had hits with Woody Allen (Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask) and especially with Richard Pryor (Silver Streak, Stir Crazy and See No Evil, Hear No Evil), but it’s Wilder’s teamwork with Brooks that will stand the test of time. Many of his fans feel frustrated that this trained actor never grabbed the dramatic role that would have taken his career to another level, as it did with Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey and Robin Williams. But what never waned in Wilder was his generosity of spirit. When his third wife, Gilda Radner, died of ovarian cancer in 1989, he helped found Gilda’s Club, a network of support centers for women with cancer. There was something in Wilder that translated from real life to the screen and vice versa. Radner said it best: “With Gene, my life went from black-and-white white to Technicolor.” Thanks to the Wilder performances that will live on after him, we all know the feeling.