Ac­tor found fame in Mel Brooks spoofs, ‘Wonka’

Baltimore Sun - - NATION - By Richard Natale

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.

MYCHELE DANIAU/GETTY-AFP

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