Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Jeanne (Baer) and William J. Silberman, who manufactured miniature whiskey and beer bottles. His father was a Russian Jewish immigrant, while his Illinois-born mother was of Russian Jewish descent.
Wilder caught his first big break playing a small role in the off-Broadway production of Arnold Wesker’s “Roots” and followed quickly with his Broadway debut as the comic valet in “The Complaisant Lover” (both 1961), for which he won the Clement Derwent Award. His other Broadway credits included “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1963, with Kirk Douglas), “The White House” (1964, with Helen Hayes) and “Luv” (1966), but it was a 1963 Broadway production of “Mother Courage and Her Children” that altered the course of his life forever. In its cast was Anne Bancroft, who was dating Mel Brooks at the time, and the relationship established between the two men eventually led to Wilder becoming part of Brooks’ “stock company”.
Wilder’s Actor’s Studio connection may have helped him land his first feature, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), in which he drew much favorable attention in a small but memorable role as a frightened young undertaker abducted by the legendary duo. Wilder’s performance as the endearingly frantic Leo Bloom in The Producers (1967) kicked off his celebrated collaboration with Mel Brooks and garnered him an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. His career gained momentum as he played a swashbuckler in Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), the candy impresario of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and a sheep-smitten doctor in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972). Wilder re-teamed with Mel Brooks for the inspired lunacy of Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974), earning his second Oscar nomination for his first-time screen-writing efforts (along with Mel Brooks) on the latter.
Wilder made his directorial debut (in addition to acting and starring) with The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975). His first association with Richard Pryor had come on Blazing Saddles (1974), but Pryor (also co-screenwriter) had lost out in his bid for the Cleavon Little role. Pryor and Wilder first acted together in the commercially successful Silver Streak (1976) and scored at the box office again with Stir Crazy (1980), but their later efforts were mediocre. Ironically, Hanky Panky (1982), Wilder’s first of three films with his wife Gilda Radner, originally was written to pair him with Richard Pryor again, but Pryor’s unavailability necessitated rewriting the part for Radner.
He died on August 29, 2016 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. His nephew said in a statement, “We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones – this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him “there’s Willy Wonka”, would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
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