On August 29 the world became just a little less funny with the news that legendary comedian Gene Wilder had passed away at the age of 83. Gene Wilder performed in several Broadway productions including Mother Courage and Her Children and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest before getting his first film role in the 1967 picture Bonnie and Clyde working alongside Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. But he didn’t really hit it big until The Producers (1968) written and directed by Mel Brooks where as Leo Bloom, Wilder played the straight man to Zero Mostel. Wilder was in a word magical; the scene where Mostel’s Max gets Leo dancing around in a fountain is one for the ages as is seeing the Jewish Leo having to wear a swastika banner on his arm. Wilder was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Mel Brooks (And America!) had found a new Funnyman.
Gene Wilder’s iconic performance in the titular role of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor-Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. No offense to Johnny Depp, but no one, no one could play a peculiar, sad-eyed dreamer like Wilder could with those large haunting, melancholy peepers of his. In 1972, Wilder was featured in Woody Allen’s classic Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid To Ask. In 1974, Wilder starred in two movies for Brooks; Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein both of which are now universally agreed on as not only Brooks best work, not only two of the best comedies of all time, but as two of the best movies of all time. Period. (To this day my father has memorized the whole song and dance routine for Young Frankenstein’s musical number “Putting on the Ritz.”)
Then came the Richard Pryor years following the 1976 hit Silver Streak when Hollywood learned that Pryor and Wilder were a dynamite pairing. The two would go on to make three more films Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1990). The last was the last major film either one of them ever starred in. Pryor became increasingly debilitated due to MS and died in 2005, while Wilder became more retiring in the wake of the death of his third wife Gilda Radner at the age of 42, from ovarian cancer in 1989. He only had a few smaller television gigs, including the role of Mock Turtle in a live action version of Alice in Wonderland, and then retreated to private life completely. But oh what a run he had while it lasted!
Goodbye Gene, and I hope you’re riding off into the sunset now somewhere with Gilda, Richard, Zero, and Cleavon Little.
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