When you mention the name Gene Wilder to anyone, you are often met with a huge grin. Many will reminisce certain moments in their lives where they were with family and friends chuckling away at a Gene Wilder Epic, I know I have myself. So here is a small tribute to Gene Wilder, or in many of our hearts, Willy Wonka.
Gene Wilder, was born Jerome Silberman, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on June 11, 1933 and was married to Saturday Night Live comedienne Gilda Radner, who shortly after marriage died of Ovarian cancer of which Gene was a massive campaigner for awareness and treatment. He is survived by his adopted daughter Katharine Wilder. Gene first found his love for performing, when his mother’s doctor prescribed that he was to make her laugh whilst she fought rheumatic fever, and his love for performance only grew when on his 13th birthday he began acting lessons. After a somewhat turbulent time at military school, Gene returned to his home and took part in community theatre.
His role as an eccentric factory owner didn’t seem to be an acting job but an extension of his own self and his performance of ‘Pure Imagination’ is still regarded as one of Hollywood’s most beautiful moments.
He met Mel Brooks through his work with Brooks’ soon to be wife Anne Bancroft, who praised Wilder for his comedic genius. Gene and Mel’s partnership proved to be a match made in heaven; their first movie together was the 1968 Oscar nominated hit ‘The Producers’, and shortly after followed ‘Young Frankenstein’ and the satirical masterpiece that is ‘Blazing Saddles’. Mel Brooks was one of the first people to comment on Wilder’s death stating that Gene was “one of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship.”
In 1971, Gene Wilder played the role of a lifetime as Willy Wonka in the fantastical hit ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ in which he was (in my personal opinion) robbed of the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. Personally, I feel that you haven’t seen this movie, then you haven’t truly had a childhood. His role as an eccentric factory owner didn’t seem to be an acting job but an extension of his own self and his performance of ‘Pure Imagination’ is still regarded as one of Hollywood’s most beautiful moments. John Collins, a 3rd Year Screenwriting student said, “his Willy Wonka was a childhood favourite of mine and as I’ve got older, I appreciate his talent even more in films such as The Producers, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. One of my comedy heroes – 2016’s been a rotten year.”
However, you cannot discuss Gene Wilder without discussing his partnership with comedian Richard Pryor, in work such as ‘Stir Crazy’ as an actor but also as a writer in the film ‘See no evil – hear no evil’ which at the time was dubbed a flop however it has since become a cult hit, with scenes such as the mug shot scene as hilarious as the first time you watch it. Sidney Poitier has commented on this truly special partnership stating “for some reason when you pair him [Pryor] with Gene Wilder, they make a particular kind of magic together. And, together, they are probably the funniest pair that’s ever been on screen.”
Gene Wilder passed away on 28th August after losing his fight with Alzheimer’s Disease. Whilst we are sad that such a talent has been lost, we can but cherish the memories of one kind, talented and very, very funny man.
And in the words of the man himself, “as they say in Corsica… Goodbye!” Well said Gene, well said.