Gene Wilder, comedy genius (1933-2016)

Stir Crazy

The flag is flying at half staff today in honor of Gene Wilder, one of America’s finest comedy actors.  He passed away at 83 years old yesterday in Connecticut.  We all benefitted through his unique style of humor, often playing the straight man stuck in outrageous circumstances.  He may very well be America’s best comedic actor, as demonstrated by his starring role in three of the top thirteen comedies on the American Film Institute’s list of the funniest movies of all time (Blazing Saddles at #6, The Producers at #11, and Young Frankenstein at #13).  And a fourth, Silver Streak, was listed as #95.  Also, nominated?  Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Stir Crazy, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.  Basically every film he was known well for was pure comedic gold.

Wilder’s breakthrough performance was as an unassuming fellow in the wrong place at the wrong time in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), one of the AFI’s top 50 films of all time.  His partnership with Mel Brooks was legendary, arguably producing the films he will always be best known for:  The Producers (1967), Blazing Saddles (1974), and Young Frankenstein (1974).  But you can’t stop there.  There are his films directed by Arthur Hiller (who died earlier this month): Silver Streak (1976) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989).  And he directed himself and familiar circle of comedic actors in films like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975), The World’s Greatest Lover (1977), The Woman in Red (1984), and Haunted Honeymoon (1986) with wife Gilda Radner.  And he has become a fixture with two generations of children as Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971).

Wilder gif

He worked with all sorts of familiar names, starring in Funny About Love (1990) directed by Leonard Nimoy, and co-starred with Harrison Ford in The Frisco Kid (1979).  He worked under director Sydney Poitier in two films, Stir Crazy (1980) and Hanky Panky (1982), also with Radner.  Wilder’s films with Richard Pryor are practically their own sub-genre of comedy.  They worked together in Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989), and Another You (1991).  But it doesn’t stop there.

His superb made-for-TV mysteries Murder in a Small Town (1999) and The Lady in Question (1999), similar in tone to the popular Mystery Woman series, should have been an ongoing series.  Wilder had a short-lived series, Something Wilder, in 1994-95.

As you work your way back through Wilder’s catalog of comedy, we recommend you re-watch one of our two favorites, Young Frankenstein, for dozens of his best one-liners (it’s on my recommendation list for best Halloween movie watching).  Wilder won the Nebula/Ray Bradbury Award and was nominated for an Oscar for the script.  Young Frankenstein has never lost its appeal.  Mel Brooks is releasing a making of book later this year (discussed previously here).  If you haven’t seen Silver Streak, it’s a cinema gem, too, showcasing multiple sides of Wilder’s acting skill.  Colin Higgins’ (Foul Play, 9 to 5) screenplay for Silver Streak is considered by the industry as one of the best comedy scripts written, and it’s one of Hiller’s best films, with great performances by Jill Clayburgh, Patrick McGoohan, Ned Beatty, Clifton James, Ray Walston, Scatman Crothers, Richard Kiel, and Fred Willard.  Watch for Wilder’s quick but concise tirade when he loses patience with a local sheriff.  Nobody played angst better than Wilder.

Gene Wilder

Wilder wrote in his later years, his books all still in print, including his memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, and novels My French Whore, The Woman Who Wouldn’t, and Something to Remember You By, and book of stories What Is This Thing Called Love?

Wilder donated his various scripts and papers to the University of Iowa, where he graduated from the school’s film program in 1955, available for scholarly research.

C.J. Bunce

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