Actor found fame in Mel Brooks spoofs, ‘Wonka’
Gene Wilder, who regularly stole the show in such comedic gems as “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” died Monday at his home in Stamford, Conn. His nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said he died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83.
He had been diagnosed with nonHodgkin’s lymphoma in 1989.
Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, the comic actor, who was twice Oscarnominated, for his role in “The Producers” and for co-penning “Young Frankenstein” with Mel Brooks, usually portrayed a neurotic who veered between total hysteria and dewy-eyed tenderness.
Wilder was devastated by his then-wife Gilda Radner’s death from ovarian cancer in 1989, working only intermittently after that.
Wilder tried his hand at a sitcom in 1994, “Something Wilder,” and won an Emmy in 2003 for guesting on “Will & Grace.”
His professional debut came in offBroadway’s “Roots” in 1961, followed by a stint on Broadway in Graham Greene’s comedy “The Complaisant Lover,” which won him a Clarence Derwent Award as promising newcomer. His performance in the 1963 production of Brecht’s “Mother Courage” was seen by Brooks, whose future wife, Anne Bancroft, was starring in the production; a friendship with Brooks would lead to some of Wilder’s most successful film work.
In 1967 Wilder essayed his first memorable big-screen neurotic, Eugene Grizzard, a kidnapped undertaker in Arthur Penn’s classic “Bonnie and Clyde.”
Then came “The Producers,” in which he played the hysterical Leo Bloom. Directed and written by Brooks, the film brought Wilder an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor.
In 1971 he stepped into the shoes of Willy Wonka, one of his most beloved and gentle characters. Based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” was not an immediate hit but became a children’s favorite over the years. He acted in Woody Allen’s spoof “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex,” in a segment in which he played a doctor who falls in love with a Gene Wilder delighted audiences with his comic turns in “Blazing Saddles” and “The Producers.” sheep.
Full-fledged film stardom came with two other Brooks comedies, both in 1974: Western spoof “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein,” in which Wilder portrayed the mad scientist.
Working with Brooks spurred Wilder to write and direct his own comedies, though none reached the heights of his collaborations with Brooks. The first of these was “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Younger Brother” (1975), in which he included such Brooks regulars as Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman. It was followed by 1977’s “The World’s Greatest Lover,” which he also produced.
Wilder fared better, however, when he was working solely in front of the camera, particularly in a number of films in which he co-starred with Richard Pryor.
The first of these was 1978’s “Silver Streak,” a spoof of film thrillers set on trains; 1980’s “Stir Crazy” was an even bigger hit, grossing more than $100 million
While filming “Hanky Panky” in 1982, Wilder met “Saturday Night Live” comedienne Radner. She became his third wife shortly thereafter.
Wilder and Radner co-starred in his most successful directing stint, “The Woman in Red” in 1984, and then “Haunted Honeymoon.” But Radner grew ill with cancer, and he devoted himself to her care, working sporadically after that and hardly at all after her death in 1989.
He last acted in “Will and Grace” in 2002-03.
The actor was active in raising cancer awareness in the wake of Radner’s death.