This week I’m going with one of my all time favorite actors: Gene Wilder. Starting with his breakthrough role in the 1968 Mel Brooks comedy The Producers, he rattled off a string of some of the most iconic roles in the greatest comedies of the 70’s. He was The Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, Dr. Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein and co-starred in three movies with Richard Pryor, Silver Streak,Stir Crazy and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. Of course most people know him best as the original Willy Wonka. As a kid his demented yet sweet, terrifying yet somehow friendly portrayal made me feel like he was the cool adult who understood the fantasy world of us kids. I made it a point to watch any movie he was in from there on out and was never disappointed with his performance. I loved the way his warm, gentle voice and demeanor could snap instantly, into blind panic as Leo Bloom or insane megalomania as Dr. Frankenstein (It’s pronounced Frahnkensteen, by the way). On top of all that, he could be a great straight man, as evidenced in the song and dance number from Young Frankenstein:
At the height of his stardom he directed his first movie, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. No, not Mycroft, we’re talking about Sigerson Holmes. To be honest it’s not a very good movie but you can tell it was a personal project as he cast his buddies Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman and included scenes that show off his considerable fencing skill, honed at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England, where he was the first freshman to ever win the All School Fencing Championship. As I said, the movie isn’t the greatest but it’s certainly charming and has it’s moments. It plays like a less-manic Mel Brooks movie, probably because it basically is a Mel Brooks movie, without Mel Brooks.
Gene married Gilda Radner in 1984 and they appeared in several movies together but it turned tragic when Gilda was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986 and passed away in 1989. Gene retired from public view for a time but still did occasional TV work. He hasn’t appeared on screen since 2003, when he won an Emmy for his role as Will’s boss on Will & Grace.
I recently saw a documentary on his life, Role Model: Gene Wilder, where he’s interviewed by Alec Baldwin. It was kind of a shock to see him so old, he’s nearly 80 now. After a lifetime of seeing his movies over and over again combined with him being mostly out of the public eye for so long I suppose he’s forever fixed in my mind as being ageless like Willy Wonka. The documentary is highly recommended, Gene tells some great stories and just seems like the nicest, sweetest old man. No surprise since that’s who he seemed to be his whole life.