Life & Culture

Obituary: Gene Wilder

American actor who brilliantly conveyed “neurotic anxiety” in cinema classics


The death of actor Gene Wilder at the age of 83 in Connecticut on Monday brought forth a global outpouring of love and sadness. No surprise. Wilder starred in half a dozen acknowledged cinema classics. Classic movies become cultural touchstones for people. When film-goers remember the first time they saw a classic, they don't just remember the movie. They remember how old they were, who they were with, what the world was like.

Several generations of film-goers have been having those memories this week when they think about Young Frankenstein or Willy Wonka or Stir Crazy.

Wilder disliked being thought of as a "comic" actor but his genius was for comedy of a very particular kind. He was part of a gifted generation of American Jewish performers and writers who became prominent in the late 1950s. Wilder was born on June 11, 1933. Joan Rivers was born three days earlier, Philip Roth three months before them, Woody Allen two years later.

All crossed the metaphorical ghetto into the wider world. They acknowledged their Jewishness but not their separateness from the rest of society and they found an audience in America at large.

Their anxieties about changing identity, assimilation, and the catastrophe of the Holocaust fuelled a manic, occasionally surreal, often scabrous form of humour. It was Jewish but wholly shaped by the American experience.

Wilder was always very clear about this. "I feel very Jewish and I feel very grateful to be Jewish. But I don't believe in God or anything to do with the Jewish religion," he told author Abigail Pogrebin in her book Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish.

The actor was born Jerry Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father William manufactured novelty items. His mother Jeanne was a housewife. Wilder was formed by mid-20th century Jewish influences.

Shortly after his barmitzvah he was sent 2,000 miles away to Black-Foxe Military Institute in Los Angeles. He was beaten up and verbally abused daily for being Jewish. His parents took him out of the school and he went to a local school in Milwaukee, but he continued to endure regular antisemitic harassment.

Wilder acknowledged the importance of the therapy developed by the ultimate secular Jewish sage, Sigmund Freud, in getting him through psychological crises. There were many. His first two marriages, to actress and playwright Mary Mercier, in 1960, and Mary Joan Schutz, in 1967, ended in divorce. His third, to Gilda Radner ended in tragedy when she succumbed to ovarian cancer aged 42. Later came his own diagnosis with non-Hodgkins lymphoma which he survived via a stem cell transplant.

He studied acting privately with Lee Strasberg at the exclusive Actor's Studio. Strasberg had been a founder of the Group Theatre in the 1930's – well-spring of America's mid 20th-century theatrical greatness - whose members were overwhelmingly secular Jews. He was highly selective in his choice of private students at the Actor's Studio. Upon becoming a Studio member, Jerry Silberman changed his name. He chose Wilder to honour Thornton Wilder, author of Our Town, his favourite play. Gene was the name of the title character in his favourite novel, Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe.

Wilder became a jobbing New York actor in the early sixties. Neil Simon and Murray Schisgal were writing hugely successful comedies about being neurotic and anxious. The comedy clubs were full of Jewish stand-ups doing routines about being neurotic and anxious.

Wilder was brilliant at conveying neurotic anxiety but he was a serious actor, not a stand-up. He exemplified something Heinrich Heine, the great German Jewish poet, once said: "I try to tell my grief, and it all becomes comic."

Watch him hyperventilating and clutching his blue blanket in The Producers. It's funny but his psychological pain is very real and very, very disturbing.

The Producers, made in 1968, was his first co-starring role in a film. Mel Brooks cast Wilder as Leo Bloom opposite Zero Mostel's Max Bialystok.

The actor recalled for author Pogrebin, that filming The Producers was the moment in his life when he felt most Jewish. "Not while the camera was rolling, but while they [Brooks and Mostel] were talking. I identified with something that was Jewish. They weren't talking about Jewish subjects. But I said to myself, 'Yes, I'm part of that; I'm part of what they're doing, and how they sound, and how they're thinking. That's in me.'"

The Producers was nominated for two Oscars and won one. Wilder's film career benefited, however, from the historical moment.

The film business reflected the wider changes in society. Ethnic was in. Natural was in. People didn't have to surgically alter their looks if they wanted leading roles. Dustin Hoffman and Woody Allen became unlikely film stars. There was plenty of leading man work for Wilder including Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Just like The Producers, that film also became a classic but on release did poorly at the box office.

Wilder hooked up again with Brooks to co-write Young Frankenstein ("It's pronounced, Fronken-steen"). The pair were nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film made money and then they made Blazing Saddles which made even more money. It also began Wilder's relationship with Richard Pryor, who was a writer on the film. The pair made four films together including another classic: Stir Crazy.

In the last decades of his life, Wilder retreated to Stamford Connecticut where he lived with his fourth wife, Karen (née Boyer). He wrote several novels but his life's work was long finished when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease three years ago. It is a body of work that will continue to be watched with pleasure and shape people's memories of a particular moment in American and Jewish history for many decades to come. His fourth wife, Karen, survives him.

Gene Wilder: born June 11, 1933. Died August 29 2016

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