A creature of the 1970s, like some neurotic human Muppet, Gene Wilder was a beautiful freak who cannot easily be compared to any other performer. He himself said that he was inspired by Danny Kaye and Sid Caesar, and as a boy he wanted to make his mother laugh because she was often ill and he wanted her to be happy. Wilder was born Jerome Silberman, and when he was sent to a military school as a teenager the other kids would beat him up and yell anti-Semitic taunts at him.
He saw Lee J. Cobb in Death of a Salesman on stage, and this inspired him to study acting, first in England at the Old Vic, where he won a fencing championship, and then in the US at the HB Studio, which was run by Uta Hagen and her husband Herbert Berghof. He also studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio and finally took the stage name of Gene Wilder. The Gene came from the main character in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and the Wilder came from the playwright Thornton Wilder.
Wilder worked on stage in Brecht’s Mother Courage with Anne Bancroft, whose husband Mel Brooks would be a key later collaborator, and he made his film debut in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) as a square mortician taken for a ride by the criminal Barrow gang. That’s a brief role, but Wilder makes his full talent felt in this movie, especially in his silent reaction after his girlfriend blurts out her real age of thirty-three. Wilder doesn’t need a line of dialogue to get his laugh here. He does it all with his face, with a multi-layered squirming that is funny because it’s so unexpectedly extreme.
Brooks helped to make Wilder into a film star when he gave him the role of the repressed accountant Leo Bloom in The Producers (1968), a sly, stunted man who goes into hysterics very easily and needs a small square of his original childhood blue blankie to keep him calm. Why is Wilder so funny in this movie and so many others? Because he is so serious and intense about everything, and so neurotic that his repressions have repressions and his phobias have phobias. That’s a rich vein to work comedically, and it meant that Wilder would never do the simple or the obvious. He often started out at an extreme of hysteria that barely anyone else had touched before and then went further and further with it, off into some stratosphere of his own. The results were very funny, yes, but also unsettling, anomalous, unaccountable.
In 1971 he played his signature part: Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, an intimidating and genuinely dangerous guy, an outsider who has created a world of his own. Wilder’s Wonka is becalmed yet judgmental, filled with rage but filled with tenderness, too. Like a doctor and a patient all in one. This is a very complicated performance set within the context of a fairly modest film, and Wilder is at his best here when he can be most surprising, amazing, twisted, perverted. What is his Wonka’s damage? That’s hard to say, just as it’s hard to diagnose someone like Wilder. “Genius” maybe isn’t too strong a word for him, though it usually is too strong a word for most performers. Maybe it’s better to say that he was poetic, and very rare.
Wilder was at his best again for Woody Allen in 1972 as a man in love with a sheep in a segment of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * (But Were Afraid to Ask). He plays his part in that absolutely straight, so to speak, packing a whole Emil Jannings humiliation melodrama from the silent period into one kinky shift of his eyelids as he hopelessly attempts to hide his perverted excitement with the sheep he adores (her name is Daisy). Wilder’s face in that movie is a study in polymorphous perversity, childlike and hot under many collars at once.
He reached his peak in two films for Mel Brooks, Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974), which he himself conceived and co-wrote. That’s a major comic leading man performance from Wilder in Young Frankenstein: vain, droll, and somehow more assured than before, juicier and even more dimensional. And yet somehow he never advanced beyond that perfect horror movie send-up. Wilder wrote and directed modest films of his own after that, and he made a series of movies with Richard Pryor, but it felt like the creative pressure that had sustained his best roles in the late 1960s and early 1970s had abated.
Wilder didn’t work very much in the 1980s and basically retired by 1990. He loved and married the beloved Gilda Radner, and he never stopped mourning her after she died in 1989. He wrote novels and appeared occasionally on television, but it feels like the whole second half of his career is missing. Think of all the great character parts he could have played. Though he was squeamish about bad language as an older man, imagine Wilder as Abel Ferrara’s King of New York (1990). Imagine him in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Put him somewhere in Mulholland Drive (2001). Or in William Hurt’s part in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005). Or as Will Ferrell’s father in a comedy.
Imagine Wilder in some of Alan Arkin’s parts, or in a Christopher Guest movie, or The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) with Wilder as the patriarch. Gene Hackman is very good in that film. But it becomes a funnier and more probing movie with Wilder in that role. He is an irreplaceable, specialized, and somehow neglected figure, with those big blue Goldie Hawn googly eyes of his and his gently precise speaking voice, which was so soothing but edgy. He was one of those people that you want so much more of, and that you miss in an unreasonably deep way.