Written By Erin Lobner. Media by Paige Lunde.
The star of movies like “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and “Young Frankenstein,” Gene Wilder was known for his ability to make people laugh. His dynamic acting created realistic and tangible characters, allowing for Wilder to speak to the audience in a way not every actor can. Sadly, he passed away at the age of 83 in late August. In appreciation of Wilder’s work, let’s take a moment to remember his life and some of his greatest accomplishments.
Wilder, born Jerome Silberman, lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the early part of his life. When he was a child, his mother suffered from rheumatic heart disease. Her doctor told Wilder, “Don’t ever argue with your mother… you might kill her. Try to make her laugh.” This responsibility is what spurred his interest in entertainment.
As a young adult, he took to the stage, acting in plays like “Romeo and Juliet”. After studying communication, theater arts, and fencing at universities in the United States and the United Kingdom, he was drafted into the Army for two years. He then moved to New York and decided to rebrand himself, choosing the name Gene Wilder.
He performed somewhat regularly in Broadway shows before meeting Mel Brooks, who decided to cast Wilder in his movie “The Producers”. While the film itself wasn’t incredibly successful, Wilder received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. Soon after, he landed his iconic role as Willy Wonka.
Wilder helped bring to life Willy Wonka, the eccentric chocolatier from Roald Dahl’s book, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. For those unfamiliar with this childhood story, here’s a brief synopsis: “The last of five coveted “golden tickets” falls into the hands of a sweet but very poor boy. He and his grandpa then get a tour of the strangest chocolate factory in the world. The owner leads five young winners on a thrilling and often dangerous tour of his factory.” Wilder took the role on the condition that, in Willy Wonka’s first appearance, he would exit the factory limping and using a cane for support, then fall into a somersault and pop back up. He said it would add to Wonka’s character development “because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth”.
As his career progressed, Wilder took on the challenge of writing and directing on top of acting. He co-wrote “Young Frankenstein” with Brooks, and wrote, directed, and starred in both “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” and “The World’s Greatest Lover”. Between 1976 and 1991, he worked with Richard Pryor on four movies, including “Stir Crazy” and “See No Evil, Hear No Evil”. One of his final big projects was the A+E Network’s show “Murder in a Small Town”.
Over the course of his life, Wilder married four times. He did not have any children of his own but adopted one of his wife’s daughters from a previous marriage. In his spare time, he wrote a handful of books, including a memoir and several novels. Earlier this August, he passed away due to complications from Alzheimer’s.
Although this is just a small tribute to a renowned man, let it be a reminder of the joy he brought to so many people. If you enjoyed any of Gene Wilder’s works, comment your favorite as a final thank you and goodbye.