Another great one has passed into the far beyond and as our hearts break, yet again (thanks 2016) we reflect on his huge personality and his ever-lasting legacy as one of the world’s greatest thespians…the over-the-top personality of Gene Wilder
Wilder studied Communication and Theatre Arts at the University of Iowa where he graduated in 1955 before being accepted at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England.
After six months of studying fencing, Wilder became the first freshman to win the All-School Fencing Championship.
He desired studying Stanislavski’s system, so he returned to the U.S., living with his sister and her family in Queens where he enrolled at the HB Studio.
While studying acting at the HB Studio, Wilder worked as a paramedic in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Valley Forge Army Hospital, in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, after being drafted into the military on Sept. 10, 1956.
That’s a man’s man actor if I’ve ever seen one…
Now, you may remember his unforgettably sharp-witted roles in the films “Young Frankenstein” and “Blazing Saddles” and most likely the first image that comes to mind when you think of Gene Wilder is that funny slender man in the colorful suit and brown top hat, and who could blame you? He was the untouchable, eccentric, albeit a crazy genius of the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory.
So many people rightfully spent their childhood both admiring and fearing Wilder’s performance as the never-grown-up chocolateer, but this man was able to transcend that single unforgettable performance to create a name, an impenetrable persona, as the quintessential dry, impossibly funny actor of the 20th century.
That might seem a bold claim but I ask this, when were you born? Because if you were born after the year 2000 and are not a film buff, then most likely his talent is incomprehensible at this stage in your life.
I actually just read an article a few days ago about how a great deal of his performance as the sprightly Willy Wonka was kept a secret to the rest of the cast beforehand, allowing for the greatest amount of surprise and wonder and genuine reaction from his costars. The infamous tunnel scene for example, according to this article:
“You can see the terror on the faces of the passengers, both kids and adults alike, but it wasn’t just good acting — their terror was real. All the actors had been set up for was a simple boat ride; only Gene Wilder himself knew what was really in store.”
Any other actor could stop right there and live off the residuals just fine, but Wilder had greater aspirations. Wilder fought hard to convince Mel Brooks to direct a new piece he was working on called “Young Frankenstein,” but after several attempts Brooks still seemed uninterested.
It wasn’t until Brooks came to the realization that he had spent four years working on two box-office failures that he decided to accept Wilder’s (and his agent’s) proposal.
But, before the script was finished, Brooks had an actor drop out of his current project, a little film called “Blazing Saddles,” at which time he frantically offered Wilder the part. The rest is history.
Shortly after, “Young Frankenstein” was a commercial success, with Wilder and Brooks receiving Best Adapted Screenplay nominations at the 1975 Oscars, losing to Francis Coppola and Mario Puzo for their adaptation of “The Godfather Part II” (a worthy film to lose to in any situation).
Wilder died at the age of 83 on August 28, 2016, at home in Stamford, Connecticut, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Mr. Wilder… Gene…
We will never forget you.
You inspired several generations,
You changed the comedic landscape forevermore,
and you did it all without sacrificing your integrity or your artistic fervor!
You win! “Good DAY, sir!”