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Remembering Gene Wilder

September 11, 2016 | by Mark Miller

Born Jerome Silberman, the frizzy-haired comedic actor touched our funny bones and our hearts.

Beloved actor Gene Wilder died at the age of 83 on August 29, 2016, at home in Stamford, Connecticut, from complications of Alzheimer's disease. He had kept knowledge of his condition private, but had been diagnosed three years prior to his death. Wilder's nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, said that this was so as not to sadden his younger fans.

Wilder was born Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of Jeanne (Baer) and William J. Silberman, a manufacturer and salesman of novelty items. His father was a Russian Jewish immigrant, as were his maternal grandparents. Wilder was raised Jewish and in his 2006 book, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, stated, “I feel very Jewish and I feel very grateful to be Jewish.”

“I feel very Jewish and I feel very grateful to be Jewish.”

Wilder first became interested in acting at age 8, when his mother was diagnosed with rheumatic fever and the doctor told him to "try and make her laugh." At the age of 11, he saw his sister, who was studying acting, performing onstage, and he was enthralled by the experience. After a stint in the Army, Wilder went on to study with Herbert Berghoff and Uta Hagen at the HB Studio, and later with Lee Strasberg’s “Method Acting” technique at the Actors Studio.

Feeling that "Jerry Silberman in Macbeth" did not have the right ring to it, he adopted a stage name. He chose "Wilder" because it reminded him of Our Town author Thornton Wilder, while "Gene" came from Thomas Wolfe's first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. He adopted "Gene Wilder" for his professional name at the age of 26.

Wilder had a rich and varied career in primarily comedy films throughout the 1960s and 1970s, first appearing on our radar in his movie debut in 1967’s "Bonnie and Clyde". In this biopic of the legendary criminals, Wilder played a hostage of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty's felonious duo.

In 1967’s “The Producers”, Wilder's first screen collaboration with Mel Brooks had him playing a timid accountant swept up in a financial scheme involving a deliberately awful Broadway musical. For this portrayal, Wilder received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

"Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory", in 1971, found Wilder playing the title role in this perennial children's favorite, based on the book by Roald Dahl.

Continuing his association with Mel Brooks, Wilder starred in 1974’s "Blazing Saddles" as the gunman buddy to Cleavon Little's lawman in Brooks' satire of movie Westerns. As aging alcoholic gunslinger Jim, a.k.a. the Waco Kid, Wilder gave the movie the distinctly unheroic hero it needed.

Wilder reteamed with Brooks six years after “The Producers”, and together they created another memorable cross-genre comedy, this time targeting horror for this send-up of yesteryear's monster flicks. One of Wilder’s most popular characters was featured in 1974’s "Young Frankenstein", with Wilder as the mad scientist, "Dr. Frahnken-STEEN," a pronunciation which he demands from those who get it wrong. A standout scene is the endlessly rewatchable top-hats-and-coattails "Puttin' on the Ritz" routine with his marble-mouthed monster. He and Mel Brooks shared an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Screenplay Adapted From Other Material.

In “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother” (1975), Wilder made the jump to directing with this lunatic parody of Arthur Conan Doyle's seminal detective, and drew up the inspired script himself as well. Wilder plays Sigerson Holmes, a gifted detective furiously languishing in the shadow of the far-more-famous big brother

"Silver Streak", in 1976, kicked off Wilder’s potent onscreen collaboration with Richard Pryor in this railway caper. A series of improbable misunderstandings and coincidences pair book editor George (Wilder) with career thief Grover (Richard Pryor) in this train-set murder mystery. The pair would go on to work together in three more films, but their chemistry was instantly apparent, the perfect balance of hot and cool.

"Put Wilder and Pryor in bird costumes and frame them for robbing a bank" would be a winning formula for a movie all on its own, but that's just the setup for “Stir Crazy” (1980) this fish-out-of-water buddy-comedy. The good stuff only comes once the two men adjust to the life of a prisoner, befriending fellow inmates and getting involved in the crooked competitive rodeo that the warden stages each year. Wilder's last partnership with Pryor was in 1981’s “Another You”, a comedy about a con man and a former mental patient.

Sidney Poitier and Wilder became friends, with the pair working together on a script called Traces – which became 1982's “Hanky Panky”, the film where Wilder met future wife, fellow actor and SNL alumna Gilda Radner. Through the remainder of the decade, Wilder and Radner worked on several projects together.

He shared the screen with her in “The Woman in Red” (1984) a romantic comedy that he also wrote and directed. It was not well received by the critics, nor was their next project, 1986's “Haunted Honeymoon”, which failed to attract audiences. “The Woman in Red” did win an Academy Award for Best Original Song for Stevie Wonder's song "I Just Called to Say I Love You".

Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989, aged 42. Intent on deriving something constructive from her death, Wilder spoke out to urge doctors to look for the family links that could lead to earlier diagnosis. “Gilda didn’t have to die,” he tearfully told a Congressional committee. In 1993, he opened Gilda’s Club, a support center in New York for cancer patients and their families.

In 1999, Wilder announced that he had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, from which he recovered with the help of chemotherapy and stem cell transplants. When the '90s came to a close, Wilder effectively retired from show business. Though he appeared as a guest star on Will and Grace in 2002 and 2003 (for which he won a Prime Time Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series), he soon gave up on show business: "I like show, but I don't like the business." In 2005, he published a memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art.

"Gene Wilder was one of the funniest and sweetest energies ever to take a human form. If there's a heaven, he has a Golden Ticket." ---Actor Jim Carrey on Twitter

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