Whatever Happened To…Gene Wilder


There are actors and there are, sorry, there is, Gene Wilder. He stands out in my mind, always has done, since I first saw him in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) when I was a kid. I’m not putting down the Bratt Pitt’s of this world, they have a place too, but there really is something special about Gene Wilder.

He started life as Jerome Silberman, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin born to a Russian Jewish immigrant father and a Russian Jewish descent mother. His first movie role was as a hostage in Bonnie & Clyde. (1967). Wilder is best known, or should be best known for his movies with director/producer/actor Mel Brooks. Mel Brooks is a creative inspiration. He was an influence to me, as a thirteen years old, who constantly imbibed his movies at that age. I must say at this point, many thanks to our next door neighbours who had all his films AND a video recorder in 1982. I didn’t have drugs or sex but I went somewhere other teenagers in my town never would have had the chance to go. I will never forget how blessed I was, much appreciated.

I use the word genius sometimes when talking about Mel Brooks but we all know the term is overused and most times, not deservedly so.  When we ascribe the word ‘genius’ to someone, we are really describing out favourite pudding, which is very subjective and self indulgent, a pleasure best taken alone and with a bib.

Wilder’s breakthrough role was his sublime interpretation of Leo Bloom in Mel Brook’s The Producers (1968) He was also in Blazing Saddles (1974) Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975)  If you haven’t seen Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, you haven’t lived. I would not want you to leave this world without a verse or two and certainly a chorus, of Kangaroo Hop jumping through your mind and eye. It makes drugs, alcohol and fine food permanently unfashionable in comparison.

Young Frankenstein (1974) is another must see, more so, actually, a very funny, well acted, well directed, well produced movie, which I recommend wholeheartedly. If you haven’t already seen it, it should be on your Bucket List, needs to be.

Gene also did some great movies with that comic genius, (Ooh, let’s not go there, favourite pudding) Richard Pryor, an extremely talented but tortured comic if ever there was one.

Wilder collaborated  with Pryor on Silver Streak. (1976) I audio taped this from T.V, at age thirteen, about a year before dad was able to afford a video recorder. Oh gosh, I sound old but I  listened to it, over and over, on that little tinny tape recorder. I had to resort to imagining the visuals each time. Sad I know, but we worked for our pleasure in those days.

Wilder also acted with Pryor on Stir Crazy (1980), Hear No Evil, See No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991).

Gene also  directed and starred in his own movies including ‘Woman In Red, (1984) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986) which he also wrote, along with Terence Marsh.

Gene Wilder has also written an autobiography entitled ‘Kiss Me Like A Stranger‘ and also several novels including, ‘My French Whore: A Love Story.’

But we’re not getting anywhere here, are we really? It’s all very fine to talk about and reminiscence over the greatness that was Gene Wilder’s past but what about his present, as an 82 year old man, what is Gene doing now?

Well, he starred in two episodes of Will and Grace  as Mr. Stein in 1998 but he was also a voice over in Yo Gabba Gabba as Elmer, as recent as 2015, so he’s still keeping his hand in.

The thing is, Gene has been there and done that. He’s an octogenarian, probably wanting a bit of peace and quiet. Well, it’s not uncommon at that age. Whatever he does now in the celebrity world, he does because he wants to. I always wanted to act with Gene Wilder. He was my silly girlish fantasy in those terms because there was something intrinsically human and innocent in his performances, as well as passionate of course. I always thought his passion burst out of him during his roles, but he hadn’t actually meant for it to get so out there, so out of control. He’s an actor who, after the final take, might or might not be genuinely surprised and shocked at the depth of his own emotion. I could never imagine that, after his performances, he could ever think otherwise. He was so natural and dare I say, so full of volcanic sexual tension, that his performance could never be premeditated. I don’t see that in the actors of today but maybe I’m looking in the wrong places.

Let’s take something as simple as his role in Willy Wonka. My mother recently, unexpectedly, and treacherously declared, that she preferred the remake. Astounded, I asked her how, why and when? She just said she liked it better. While I love Johnny Depp to bits and think he’s an awesome actor, I did not rate the remake.

Let’s look at The Tunnel Scene that Marilyn Manson spoofs so wonderfully with his Dope Hat musical version, a fitting, if not slightly more macabre tribute to the original film. It works but what works more is Gene Wilder’s performance, which no doubt helped inspired ‘Dope Hat’. His acting is unpredictable, exciting, terrifying, psychopathic, passionate, chaotic but most of all, authentic. These are all the things that maybe an actor should be, yet not as a person should be and I think that encompasses Gene Wilder, a beautiful, serene and thoughtful person off camera and an incredibly powerful and unique actor on camera. While I’m still not sure exactly what happened to Gene Wilder, I believe, hope, think and trust, that he will always be that.