Gene Wilder: a life in film

Funny, vulnerable and extremely lovable - we celebrate his life and legacy


In June 2013, the actor Gene Wilder, who died this week aged 83, talked about his career in front of an audience at a Jewish cultural centre in New York. He seemed quite frail and perhaps had the beginnings of the Alzheimer's disease that killed him but it was a fascinating talk. Asked what was the greatest misconception people had about him he said: "People think I'm a funny guy and I'm really not, except in films." He wasn't funny that evening but he was amusing and wry. He came across as very lovable, which felt right, not because he was old but because that is what captivated us about him on screen.

Wilder often quoted his friend and collaborator Mel Brooks, who said of him: "You're a perfect victim. The wolves are around because they smell the sheep and you're the sheep." They were a marvellously contrasting cohesive couple - two dimensions of Jewish comedy: Brooks, the outrageous abrasive genius, Wilder, funny and vulnerable and never offensive. In Blazing Saddles, the hysterical western full of sexual and racist jokes and Indian chiefs speaking Yiddish, written and directed by Brooks, Wilder is the Waco Kid, an alcoholic former gunslinger who gave up his guns when a six-year-old kid shot him in the backside. Soft-faced, soft-spoken, a broken man still miraculously quick on the draw, he alone in the film is a real character rather than a foul-mouthed caricature.

In The Producers, that Everest of hysterical bad taste, Wilder's Leo Bloom, the hyperneurotic accountant, is reduced to nervous collapse by dancing Hitlers and the rampaging Zero Mostel. Even as Young Frankenstein - Wilder's concept, directed by Brooks - he was vulnerable and sympathetic with a decent supply of human emotions, though surrounded by grotesques (for example Marty Feldman). These films were made over 40 years ago and still look great today. Whoever decided to remake The Producers in 2005 was a meshuggener. There will certainly not be a remake of The Frisco Kid, a film from 1979 - Wilder plays a rabbi who rides into trouble in the Wild West. Don't go there!

If Danny Kaye had been younger he would probably have played Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka, as Wilder did in 1971. There is much about Gene Wilder that is reminiscent of Kaye - blondness, a certain tone of voice, even some facial expressions. As you would expect, Kaye was a hero of young Gene and his mother.

When he was eight years old his mother had a heart attack and when she came home from hospital the doctor told Gene not to get angry with her because it might kill her.

He also told him to make her laugh. Gene used to do Danny Kaye imitations for her and sing his songs, alongside his own imitations of European immigrants recently arrived at their local synagogue in Milwaukee. It was a good apprenticeship. Certainly it's true that, in him, humour and sadness, fun and vulnerability always seem layered together.

He served two years in the army as an aide at a psychiatric unit in Pennsylvania because, "I imagined the things I would see there might relate more to acting than any of the other choices. I wasn't wrong." He always regarded himself as an actor not a comedian. In almost all his most successful films he has been acting alongside comics or aggressively comic performers - twice with the riotously manic Richard Pryor, in Silver Streak and Stir Crazy.

He disliked show business - "I like the show but not the business." A private man, he tried to steer clear of interviews though he did become highly visible after the death from ovarian cancer of his third wife, the Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner, whose condition had been misdiagnosed and allowed to develop untreated. Hers was a long, painful and widely reported ordeal and he became a campaigner for cancer research.

In 2005, he spoke to the writer Isabel Pogrebin about religion. "Gilda was as Jewish as they come," he said, "she was quite young but she kvetched like an old Jew. I had a barmitzvah, I don't know why or to please whom. I feel very Jewish and I'm grateful to be Jewish but I don't believe in God or anything to do with the Jewish religion.

He had no offspring and is outlived by his fourth wife. When the family announced his death they added an explanation as to why he had kept his Alzheimer's secret: "so that countless young children who would smile and call out to him: 'There's Willy Wonka,' would not have to be exposed to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn't bear the idea of one less smile in the world."

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