Wilder helped shape humor in the ’70s and, through an allegiance with Black comedians, used laughter to push beyond racial boundaries.
This year has been a doozy for childhood heroes and celebrity deaths. The Goblin King? Dead. The purple reign of Prince has come to an end, as well. The latest loss: ’70s comedy dynamo (and the first and best Willy Wonka) Gene Wilder.
You may be asking yourself why an intersectional feminist publication cares about a white, presumably cis male, heterosexual actor and author. Well, he helped shape humor in the ’70s and left a lasting influence on generations to come, mostly through an allegiance with Black comedians, pushing beyond boundaries with laughter.
Wilder was born Jerome Silberman to a family of Russian Jewish immigrants. He first became interested in acting when his mother was diagnosed with rheumatic fever and the doctor gently told the young man to “try to make her laugh.” He began acting in the ’60s ,and while he had a few minor roles here and there, his first noteworthy role was that of Leopold Bloom in the 1968 production of The Producers. The film was written and produced by Mel Brooks, who would later cast Wilder in Blazing Saddles and several other pivotal roles.
Blazing Saddles, the satirical Western from 1974, put Wilder in a co-starring role as a The Waco Kid alongside the main character of Black Bart, played by Cleavon Little. Black Bart is prisoner who is forced to live out his unjust jail sentence by being sheriff of a often-pillaged racist western town. Erudite, Bart makes friends with The Waco Kid, a eloquent alcoholic gunslinger who pledges his allegiance and friendship to the new sheriff — who has chosen to fend off a gang of marauders and murderers to protect his town and its people.
The film was co-written by Richard Pryor, which connected Wilder and Pryor for future comedy enterprises. The two continued to write and perform in groundbreaking comedies. While not all of the films were without problematic aspects, their creative partnership was unique and transcended race barriers present in the 1970s. The pair united audiences in laughter with their unique brand of humor, with Wilder often playing the “straight man” to Pryor’s hilarious manic characters.
Wilder also played the iconic Willy Wonka in the 1970s production of author Roald Dahl’s Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. Director Mel Stuart chased after Wilder once he left the audition, begging him to play the role. Wilder agreed to play Wonka under one condition, telling Stuart:
“When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself … but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”
When asked why, the actor and comedian explained, “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.” The iconic scene played out exactly as he wished.
In 1981, Wilder met feminist comedy genius and SNL alumn Gilda Radner on the set of another Pryor-Wilder collaboration, Stir Crazy, helmed by actor and director Sidney Poitier. As their deep friendship and admiration for one another grew, Radner and Wilder fell in love and married several years later. After difficulties conceiving, Radner discovered that she had ovarian cancer, which further metastasized. She died in 1989.
After losing his wife and best friend, Wilder became involved in various cancer awareness groups and helped found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles and Gilda’s Club.
He later found love again (and a 25-year-long marriage) with Karen Boyer, a kind woman who worked with the deaf and helped advise him on his role in See No Evil. With Boyer, he found a quiet life outside of the limelight. Sadly, he left her and the rest of his family behind this weekend.
Wilder found himself fighting his own battle over the years with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which contributed to his disappearance from show business. When interviewed by Alec Baldwin for TCM in 2008, Wilder explained why he had essentially left acting to become a writer. “I don’t like show business, I realized,” he explained. “I like show, but I don’t like the business.”
Describing himself as a “Jewish Buddhist Atheist,” Wilder was a liberal man, opposed to the Vietnam and Middle Eastern wars. Known as a very gentle person, he said of his politics: “I’m quietly political. I don’t like advertising. Giving money to someone or support, but not getting on a bandstand. I don’t want to run for president in 2008. I will write another book instead.”
On August 28, Gene Wilder succumbed to complications from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 83.