Amid the seemingly never-ending stream of celebrity deaths that 2016 brought was the passing of legendary actor, writer and director Gene Wilder. Now one year on from his death we remember one of the most popular comic actors of the last decade.
Born Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933, he is undoubtedly most fondly remembered for bringing to life Roald Dahl’s enigmatic confectionary mogul in Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory.
And although it’s the role of Wonka which will cement him in popular culture for years to come, it’s his performances – and the subsequent relationships he built with Mel brooks and Richard Pryor – that make him stand out as – in my opinion – one of the best comedy actors of the 2oth century.
It’s a tough choice but from a wealth of top notch films, for me, the best example of Wilder’s understated talent is his role in Mel Brooks’ blindingly brilliant satirical Western comedy, Blazing Saddles.
Wilder’s performance as alcoholic gunslinger The Waco Kid, is a poignant foil to the film’s savage satirisation of the racism swept under the carpet by Hollywood accounts of the American West.
In fact, speaking of Wilder’s performance in his films Brooks said: “Everything Gene did for me was angelic and supreme.”
And when news of the actor’s death broke, he tweeted:
Gene Wilder-One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship.
— Mel Brooks (@MelBrooks) August 29, 2016
The quality of his performance in Blazing Saddles is best summed up when, having woken from drunken unconsciousness, Wilder downs half a bottle of whisky, to which co-star Cleavon Little remarks: “A man drink like that and he don’t eat, he is going to die.”
Wilder stares wistfully into the distance and simply replies: “When?”
A role in Young Frankenstein followed later that year, but it was a relationship he struck up on the set of Blazing Saddles, that would lead to an extremely fruitful professional relationship with another uniquely gifted comic actor and writer – Richard Pryor.
The pair went on to star alongside each other in Stir Crazy, See No Evil Hear No Evil, Another You and – a personal favourite – the lesser spotted comedy/thriller crossover Silver Streak, which saw the pair caught up in a murder mystery set on a train journey and contains the truly brilliant scene where Pryor tutors wilder on how to ‘act black’.
Although he was married four times, it was when Wilder met his fourth wife, Gilda Radner, when they co-starred in the 1982 film Hanky Panky that he truly settled down.
Sadly, the couple’s happiness was short-lived. Gilda died of ovarian cancer in 1989, leading Wilder to found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Centre in Los Angeles along with Gilda’s Club to raise awareness of the disease.
But it is his performance as Willy Wonka that will undoubtedly continue to entertain kids for generations to come – unlike the Tim Burton directed remake, of which wilder was definitely not a fan.
He told the Daily Telegraph in 2005:
[It’s] all about money. It’s just some people sitting around thinking: how can we make some more money? Why else would you remake Willy Wonka?
Man speaks the truth.
Gene Wilder (Jerome Silberman), actor, writer, director, born June 11, 1933 ; died August 29, 2016.