Gene Wilder: Wild about Gene
Anyone who wants to perform comedy would dream of having facial features like Gene Wilder, wonderfully expressive with eyes that communicated great emotion often combined with a classical acting technique approach to his in work. Comedian Jim Carrey describing Wilder as ‘one of the funniest and sweetest energies ever to take a human form’.
Indeed, Gene studied his art meretriciously. After being sent to a hard military school which left emotional scars, he graduated from the University of Iowa studying Communications with Theatre Arts. He travelled to England to continue his studies at the Bristol Old Vic School in England and following that he enrolled in drama school in New York experimenting between technical performance and method acting.
Genes career took off in 1963 when he was working on Broadway with an actress called Anne Bancroft (b1931-d2005 – who also played Mrs Robinson in the film ‘The Graduate’ 1969). She was also dating a young Mel Brookes (going on to marry him). The script of ‘The Producers’ was hanging around in her dressing room and she gave it to Wilder to read and introduced him to Brookes. The rest is history, the success of ‘The Producers’ (1967) launched Gene Wilders film career, going on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, then making a major impact as the character Willy Wonka in the film version of Roald Dahls ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory’ (1971). The film earned him a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy. Adam West (Batman 60’s fame) commented on Wilder ‘Brilliant. Amazingly funny. The only reason I eat chocolate will be missed’.
Gene Wilder had two great collaborations in his life, the first was with Mel Brookes who said of Wilder ‘One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic and he blessed me with his friendship’. After the success of ‘The Producers’ they made in 1974 ‘Blazing Saddles’ and ‘Young Frankenstein’ which Gene co-wrote. The pair picking up an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Guardian saying about his talent ‘The frizzy-haired actor was a master at playing panicked characters caught up in schemes that only director Mel Brooks could devise, whether reviving a monster in ‘Young Frankenstein’ or bilking Broadway in ‘The Producers’. But he also knew how to keep it cool as the boozy gunfighter in ‘Blazing Saddles’ and as the charming candy man in the children’s favourite Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’.
The second highly successful collaboration was on screen with comedian Richard Pryor. The two made four films together Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980), ‘See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and ‘Another You’ (1991), each one had incredibly funny moments. My own personal favourite was in ‘Silver Streak’ when Pryor gave Wilder directions from a train stations toilet, on how to ‘act black’ as they tried to avoid police. The two had an onscreen chemistry which worked very well, although Wilder struggled to understand why. Both were good friends but did not spend large amounts of time together when not filming. Often Gene’s characters were uptight and Pryor’s laid back and lose. This contrast in themes probably was an important ingredient to their comedy cocktail.
Although primarily seen as an Actor, Gene Wilder directed and wrote several of his own films, including the acclaimed ‘The Woman in Red’ (1984) with Kelly LeBrock. At one-time he was the highest paid star in Hollywood, but despite that he was very kind and generous, a modest man fated by a successful career and difficult personal relationships, that he spent time in counselling trying to resolve.
His professional career worked far more smoothly than his personal life. Married four times, first to an English Actress Mary Mercier who he met at the New York Drama school in a weird relationship he described in his autobiography ‘Kiss me like a stranger’ – My search for Love and Art’ (2005). Their five-year marriage ended in 1965. ‘We made love every six months like clockwork,’ said Wilder acidly. He married his second wife, Mary Joan Schutz, a friend of his sister, two years later and adopted her seven-year-old daughter, Katie. The couple broke up after seven years. Gene eventually found happiness with his third wife, the extrovert comedy actress Gilda Radner (Saturday Night Live), whom he met filming ‘Hanky Panky’ (1982). At the time she was unhappily married to musician G.E. Smith, but Wilder and Radner became inseparable on set. They soon became an item, Radner splitting up with Smith and marrying Wilder in 1984. Wilder put up with a lot in his marriages, maybe due to his hurt and awful time at military school and a strict father. Radner poured her first vodka and lemonade at eight in the morning and kept on drinking. She also suffered from severe bulimia, throwing up her food so often that the acid in her vomit started to rot her teeth. She died of cancer in 1989, Gene who had cared for her with the disease for three years was heartbroken. However, two years later he married Karen Webb, a lip-reading expert who had coached him to play a deaf man in the comedy ‘See No Evil, Hear No Evil’. They were still together when he died and Wilder admitted his years with her were the happiest in his life.
Gene Wilder died aged 83 from complications of Alzheimer’s in Stamford Connecticut on August 29 2016. Stephen Fry saying ‘Farewell comic genius. Thank you for all those happy hours’.
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.