With his wild curly hair, large expressive blue eyes, slight lisp, and nervous mannerism, Gene Wilder seemed on the surface the epitome of the mild-mannered bookkeeper type, but a close look reveals a volatile energy lying beneath the milquetoast, a mad spark in the eye, and a tendency to explode into discombobulated manic hilarity, usually as a result of being unable to handle the chaos that surrounded his characters. In fact one might have labeled Wilder the consummate reactor rather than a traditional thespian. During the 1970s, Wilder starred in some of the decade's most popular comedies. Wilder was at his best when he was collaborating with Mel Brooks. Such films as The Producers, Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles became modern American classics.
The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Wilder was born Jerome "Jerry" Silberman in Milwaukee, WI. His father manufactured miniature beer and whiskey bottles. Wilder began studying drama and working in summer stock while studying at the University of Iowa. Following graduation, he furthered his dramatic studies at England's Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Wilder was an exceptional fencer and while there won the school's fencing championship. Upon his return to the U.S., Wilder supported himself by teaching fencing. At other times, he also drove a limo and sold toys. After gaining experience off-Broadway in the early '60s, Wilder joined the Actors Studio. This led to several successful Broadway appearances.
Wilder made his feature film debut playing a small but memorable role as a timid undertaker who is kidnapped by the protagonists of Arthur Penn's violent Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The following year he worked with Mel Brooks for the first time, co-starring opposite Zero Mostel in the screamingly funny Producers (1968). His role as the neurotic accountant Leo Bloom, who is seduced into a mad scheme by a once powerful Broadway producer into a crazy money-making scheme. Wilder's performance earned him an Oscar nomination. In his next film, Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), Wilder demonstrated his fencing prowess while playing one of two pairs of twins separated at birth during the years of the French Revolution. He demonstrated a more dramatic side in the underrated romantic comedy/drama Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (aka Fun Loving) (1970). The following year, Wilder starred in what many fondly remember as one of his best roles, that of the mad chocolatier Willy Wonka in the darkly comic musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Despite these and other efforts, Wilder did not become a major star until Young Frankenstein (1974), a loving and uproarious send-up of Universal horror movies for which he and Brooks wrote the script.
Following the tremendous success of Brooks' Blazing Saddles (1974), Wilder struck out on his own, making his solo screenwriting and directorial debut with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975) which co-starred fellow Brooks alumni Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman. Like his subsequent directorial efforts the humor was fitful and the direction uneven. He did however have a minor hit as the director and star of The Woman in Red (1984). As an actor, Wilder fared better with the smash hit Silver Streak (1976). As much of a romantic action-adventure as it was a comedy, it would be the first of several successful pairings with comedian Richard Pryor. Their second movie together, Stir Crazy (1980), was also a hit while their third and fourth pairings in See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1990) were much weaker. While appearing in Hanky Panky, Wilder met and married comedienne Gilda Radner. When she passed away in 1989 from cancer, Wilder was reputedly devastated. He stopped making and appearing in films after 1991; he did, however, try his hand at situation comedy in the short-lived Something Wilder (1994-1995). In the 90s he wrote and starred in a couple of made for TV murder mysteries and in 2008 he was the subject of an affectionate documentary produced for TCM. Wilder died in August 2016 from complications of Alzheimer's disease.