Gene Wilder Dies at 83; Star of ‘Willy Wonka’ and ‘Young Frankenstein’

Gene Wilder, who established himself as one of America’s foremost comic actors with his delightfully neurotic performances in three films directed by Mel Brooks; his eccentric star turn in the family classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”; and his winning chemistry with Richard Pryor in the box-office smash “Stir Crazy,” died on Sunday night at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 83.

Eric Weissmann, who was Mr. Wilder’s lawyer for many years, confirmed the death. A nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, said that the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Mr. Wilder’s rule for comedy was simple: Don’t try to make it funny; try to make it real. “I’m an actor, not a clown,” he said more than once.

With his haunted blue eyes and an empathy born of his own history of psychic distress, he aspired to touch audiences much as Charlie Chaplin had. The Chaplin film “City Lights,” he said, had “made the biggest impression on me as an actor; it was funny, then sad, then both at the same time.”

Mr. Wilder was an accomplished stage actor as well as a screenwriter, a novelist and the director of four movies in which he starred. (He directed, he once said, “in order to protect what I wrote, which I wrote in order to act.”) But he was best known for playing roles on the big screen that might have been ripped from the pages of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

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Mr. Wilder with Oompa Loompas in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” It remains one of the roles with which Mr. Wilder is most closely identified. CreditParamount Pictures, via Photofest

 

He made his movie debut in 1967 in Arthur Penn’s celebrated crime drama, “Bonnie and Clyde,” in which he was memorably hysterical as an undertaker kidnapped by the notorious Depression-era bank robbers played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. He was even more hysterical, and even more memorable, a year later in “The Producers,” Mr. Brooks’s first film and the basis of his later Broadway hit.

Mr. Wilder played the security-blanket-clutching accountant Leo Bloom, who discovers how to make more money on a bad Broadway show than a good one: Find rich backers, stage a production that’s guaranteed to fold fast, then flee the country with the leftover cash. Unhappily for Bloom and his fellow schemer Max Bialystock, played by Zero Mostel, their outrageously tasteless musical, “Springtime for Hitler,” is a sensation.

The part earned Mr. Wilder an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. Within a few years the anxious, frizzy haired, popeyed Mr. Wilder had become an unlikely movie star.

He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as the wizardly title character in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971). The film was a box-office disappointment, in part because of parental concern that the moral of Roald Dahl’s story — greedy, gluttonous children should not go unpunished — was too dark in the telling. But it went on to gain a devoted following, and Willy Wonka remains one of the roles with which Mr. Wilder is most closely identified.

His next role was more adult but equally strange: an otherwise normal doctor who falls in love with a sheep named Daisy in a segment of Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask” in 1972. Two years later, he reunited with Mr. Brooks for perhaps the two best-known entries in either man’s filmography.

In “Blazing Saddles,” a raunchy, no-holds-barred spoof of Hollywood westerns, Mr. Wilder had the relatively quiet role of the Waco Kid, a boozy ex-gunfighter who helps an improbable black sheriff (Cleavon Little) save a town from railroad barons and venal politicians. The film’s once-daring humor may have lost some of its edge over the years, but Mr. Wilder’s next Brooks film, “Young Frankenstein,” has never grown old.

Mr. Wilder himself hatched the idea, envisioning a black-and-white film faithful to the look of the Boris Karloff “Frankenstein” down to the laboratory equipment, but played for laughs rather than horror. He would portray an American man of science, the grandson of the infamous Dr. Frankenstein, who tries to turn his back on his heritage (“that’s Frahn-kahn-SHTEEN”) but finds himself irresistibly drawn to Transylvania to duplicate his grandfather’s creation of a monster in a spooky mountaintop laboratory.

Mr. Brooks’s original reaction to the idea, Mr. Wilder recalled, was noncommittal: “Cute. That’s cute.” But he eventually came aboard as director and co-writer, and the two garnered an Oscar nomination for their screenplay.

Serendipity played a role in the casting. Mr. Wilder’s agent asked him to help find work for two new clients, and thus Marty Feldman became his assistant, Igor (“that’s Eye-gor”), and Peter Boyle the monster. Madeline Kahn, whose performance as the chanteuse Lili Von Shtupp had been a highlight of “Blazing Saddles,” played the doctor’s socialite fiancée. Cloris Leachman was Frau Blücher, the sound of whose name caused horses to whinny in fear.

The name Blücher, Mr. Wilder said in a 2008 interview with The San Jose Mercury News, came from a book of letters to and from Sigmund Freud: “I saw someone named Blücher had written to him, and I said, ‘Well, that’s the name.’” And Mr. Wilder certainly knew a lot about Freud.

His first of many visits to a psychotherapist is the opening scene in the memoir he published in 2005, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art.”

“What seems to be the trouble?” the therapist asks.

“I want to give all my money away,” he says.

Mr. Wilder was an accomplished stage actor as well as a screenwriter, a novelist and director. Credit Dave Pickoff/Associated Press

“How much do you have?”

“I owe three hundred dollars.”

Soon the jokes and evasions give way to the torments of sexual repression, guilt feelings and his “demon,” a compulsion to pray out loud to God at the most embarrassing times and places, which lasted several years. But never on stage or screen, where he felt free to be someone else.

 

Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee on June 11, 1933. His father, William, a manufacturer and salesman of novelty items, was an immigrant from Russia. His mother, the former Jeanne Baer, suffered from a rheumatic heart and a temperament that sometimes led her to punish him angrily and then smother him with regretful kisses.

Young Jerry spent one semester at the Black-Foxe Military Institute in Hollywood. His mother saw it as a great opportunity; in reality it was a catch-basin for boys from broken families, where he was regularly beaten up for being Jewish.

Safe back home after that misadventure, he played minor roles in community theater productions and then followed his older sister, Corinne, into the theater program at the University of Iowa. After Iowa he studied Shakespeare at the Bristol Old Vic Theater School in England, where he was the first freshman to win the school fencing championship.

He next enrolled part-time at the HB Studio in New York, while also serving a two-year Army hitch as an aide in the psychiatric unit of the Valley Forge Army Hospital in Pennsylvania — an assignment he requested because, he said, “I imagined the things I would see there might relate more to acting than any of the other choices.” He added, “I wasn’t wrong.”

After his discharge he won a coveted spot at the Actors Studio, and it was then that he adopted the name Gene Wilder: Gene for Eugene Gant, the protagonist of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel,” and Wilder for the playwright Thornton Wilder.

Story covered by Daniel Lewis

 

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