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Gene Wilder

Gene Wilder (born Jerome Silberman; June 11, 1933) is an American Emmy Award-winning and twice Academy Award-nominated stage and screen actor, director, screenwriter and author.

Wilder began his career on stage, making his screen debut in the film Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. His first major role was as Leo Bloom in the 1968 film, The Producers. This was the first in a series of prolific collaborations with writer/director Mel Brooks, including 1974's Young Frankenstein, the script of which garnered the pair an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Wilder is known for his portrayal of Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and for his four films with Richard Pryor: Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989), and Another You (1991). Wilder has directed and written several of his films, including The Woman in Red (1984).

His marriage to actress Gilda Radner, who died from ovarian cancer, led to his active involvement in promoting cancer awareness and treatment, helping found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles and co-founding Gilda's Club.

In more recent years, Wilder turned his attention to writing, producing a memoir in 2005, Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, and the novels My French Whore (2007) and The Woman Who Wouldn't (2008).

Biography

Early life and education

Wilder, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and his sister Corinne (b. 1927) were the children of Chicago-born Jeanne (née Baer) and William J. Silberman, a Russian Jewish immigrant. Wilder first became interested in acting when at age 8, his mother was diagnosed with rheumatic fever and the doctor told him to "try and make her laugh. When Jeanne Silberman felt that her son's potential wasn't being fully realized in Wisconsin, she sent him to Black-Foxe, a military institute in Hollywood, where he wrote that he was bullied and sexually assaulted, primarily because he was the only Jewish boy in the school. After an unsuccessful short stay at Black-Foxe, Wilder returned home and became increasingly involved with the local theatre community. At age fifteen, he performed for the first time in front of a paying audience, as Balthasar (Romeo's manservant), in a production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Acting career

Early starts: Old Vic and Army

Wilder studied Communication and Theatre Arts at the University of Iowa, where he was a member of the Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity. Following his 1955 graduation from Iowa, he was accepted at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England. After six months of studying fencing, Wilder became the first freshman to win the All School Fencing Championship. Desiring to study Stanislavski's 'system', he returned to the U.S., living with his sister and her family in Queens. Wilder enrolled at the Herbert Berghof (HB) Studio.

Wilder was drafted into the army on September 10, 1956. At the end of recruit training, he was assigned to the medical corps and sent to Fort Sam Houston for training. He was then given the opportunity to choose any post that was open and wanting to stay near New York City to attend acting classes at the HB Studio, he chose to serve as a Medic in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Valley Forge Army Hospital, in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. In November 1957, his mother died from ovarian cancer. He was discharged from the army a year later, and returned to New York. A scholarship to the HB Studio allowed him to become a full-time student. At first living on unemployment insurance and some savings, he later supported himself with odd jobs such as driving a limousine and teaching fencing. Wilder's first professional acting job was in Cambridge, England, where he played the Second Officer in Herbert Berghof's production of Twelfth Night. He also served as a fencing choreographer.

After three years of study with Berghof and Uta Hagen at the HB Studio, Charles Grodin told Wilder about Lee Strasberg's method acting. Grodin persuaded him to leave the Studio and begin studying with Strasberg in his private class. Several months later, Wilder was accepted into 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 also liked "Gene" because as a boy, he was impressed by a distant relative, a World War II bomber navigator who was "handsome and looked great in his leather flight jacket. After joining the Actors Studio, he slowly began to be noticed in the off-Broadway scene thanks to performances in Sir Arnold Wesker's Roots and in Graham Greene's The Complaisant Lover, for which Wilder received the Clarence Derwent Award for "Best Performance by an Actor in a Nonfeatured Role."

Mel Brooks

In 1963, Wilder was cast in a leading role in Mother Courage and Her Children, a production starring Anne Bancroft, who introduced Wilder to her then boyfriend Mel Brooks. A few months later, Brooks mentioned that he was working on a screenplay called Springtime for Hitler, for which he thought Wilder would be perfect in the role of Leo Bloom. Brooks elicited a promise from Wilder that he would check with him before making any long term commitments with any on Broadway or Off Broadway productions. Months went by and Wilder toured the country with different theatre productions, participated in a televised CBS presentation of Death of a Salesman, and was cast for his first role in a film, a minor role in Arthur Penn's 1967 Bonnie and Clyde. After three years of not hearing from Brooks, Wilder was called for a reading with Zero Mostel, who was to be the star of Springtime for Hitler and had approval of his co-star. Mostel approved and Wilder was cast for his first leading role in a featured film, 1968's The Producers.

The Producers eventually became a cult comedy classic, with Mel Brooks winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and Wilder being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Nevertheless, Mel Brooks' first directorial effort didn't do well at the box office and wasn't well received by all critics; New York Times critic Renata Adler reviewed the film and described it as "black college humor".

In 1969, Wilder relocated to Paris, accepting a leading role in Bud Yorkin's Start the Revolution Without Me a comedy that took place during the French Revolution. After shooting ended, Wilder returned to New York where he read the script for Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx and immediately called Sidney Glazier, who produced The Producers. Both men began searching for the perfect director for the film. Jean Renoir was the first candidate but he wouldn't be able to do the film for at least a year, so British-Indian director Waris Hussein was hired.

Willy Wonka, Young Frankenstein and Richard Pryor

In 1971, Mel Stuart offered Wilder the lead role in his film adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Wilder was initially hesitant, but finally accepted the role under one condition:

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 Stuart asked why, Wilder replied, "because from that time on, no one will know if I'm lying or telling the truth. All three films Wilder did after The Producers were box office failures, Start the Revolution and Quackser seemed to audiences poor copies of Mel Brooks films; while Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory seemed, to many parents, a moral story "too cruel" for children to understand, thus failing to attract family audiences. After hearing that Wonka had been a commercial failure, Woody Allen offered Wilder a role in one segment of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). Wilder accepted, hoping this would be the hit to put an end to his series of flops. Everything was a hit, grossing over $18 million dollars in the United States alone against a $2 million dollar budget.

After Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), Wilder began working on a script he called Young Frankenstein. After he wrote a two-page scenario, he called Mel Brooks, who told him that it seemed like a "cute" idea but showed little interest. A couple of months later, Wilder received a call from his then agent, Mike Medavoy, who asked if he had anything where he could include Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman, his two new clients. Having just seen Feldman on television, Wilder was inspired to write a scene that takes place at Transylvania Station, where Igor and Frederick meet for the first time. The scene was later included in the film almost verbatim. Medavoy liked the idea and called Brooks, asking him to direct. Brooks was not convinced, but having spent four years working on two box office failures, he decided to accept. While working on the Young Frankenstein script, Wilder was offered the part of the Fox in the musical film adaptation of Saint Exupéry's classic book, The Little Prince. When filming was about to begin in London, Wilder received an urgent call from Mel Brooks, who was filming Blazing Saddles, offering Wilder the role of the "Waco Kid" after Dan Dailey dropped out at the last minute, while Gig Young became too ill to continue. Wilder shot his scenes for Blazing Saddles and immediately afterwards filmed The Little Prince.

After Young Frankenstein was written, the rights were to be sold to Columbia Pictures, but after having trouble agreeing on the budget, Wilder, Brooks and producer Michael Gruskoff went with 20th Century Fox, where both Brooks and Wilder had to sign five-year contracts. Young Frankenstein was a commercial success, with Wilder and Brooks receiving Best Adapted Screenplay nominations at the 1975 Oscars, losing to Francis Coppola and Mario Puzo for their adaptation of The Godfather Part II. While filming Frankenstein, Wilder had an idea for a romantic musical comedy about a brother of Sherlock Holmes. Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn agreed to participate in the project and Wilder began writing what became his directorial début, 1975's The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother.

In 1975, Wilder's agent sent him a script for a film called Super Chief. Wilder accepted but told the film's producers that he thought the only person who could keep the film from being offensive was Richard Pryor. Pryor accepted the role in the film, which had been renamed Silver Streak, the first film to team Wilder and Pryor. While filming Silver Streak, Wilder began working on a the script for The World's Greatest Lover, inspired by Fellini's The White Sheik. Wilder wrote, produced and directed The World's Greatest Lover, which premièred in 1977, but was a commercial and critical failure. 1979s The Frisco Kid would be Wilder's next project. The film was to star John Wayne, but he dropped out when the Warner Brothers executives tried to dissuade him from charging the studio his usual $1 million fee. Harrison Ford, a then up-and-coming actor, was hired for the role.

Sidney Poitier and Gilda Radner

In 1980, Sidney Poitier and producer Hannah Weinstein persuaded Wilder and Richard Pryor to do another film together. Bruce Jay Friedman wrote the script for Stir Crazy with Poitier directing, for Columbia Pictures. Pryor was heavily struggling with his cocaine addiction and filming became difficult, but once the film premièred it became an international success. New York magazine listed "Skip Donahue" (Wilder) and "Harry Monroe" (Pryor) number 9 on their 2007 list of "The Fifteen Most Dynamic Duos in Pop Culture History" and the film has often appeared in "best comedy" lists and rankings.

Poitier and Wilder became friends, with the pair working together on a script called Traces. Traces became 1982's Hanky Panky, the film where Wilder met comedienne Gilda Radner. Through the remainder of the decade, Wilder and Radner worked in several projects together. After Hanky Panky, Wilder directed his third film, 1984's The Woman in Red which starred Wilder, Radner and Kelly LeBrock. The Woman in Red was not well received by the critics, nor was their next project, 1986's Haunted Honeymoon which failed to attract audiences.

TriStar Pictures was looking to produce another film starring Wilder and Pryor, and Wilder agreed to do See No Evil, Hear No Evil only if he was allowed to re-write the script. The studio agreed and See No Evil, Hear No Evil premiered on May 1989 to mostly negative reviews. Many critics praised Wilder and Pryor, and even Kevin Spacey's performances but they mostly all agreed that the script was terrible. Roger Ebert called it "a real dud", the Deseret Morning News described the film as "stupid", with an "idiotic script" that had a "contrived story" and too many "juvenile gags", while Vincent Canby called it "by far the most successful co-starring vehicle for Mr. Pryor and Mr. Wilder", also acknowledging that "this is not elegant movie making, and not all of the gags are equally clever.

1990s-2000s

Wilder did one final film with Richard Pryor, the 1991 box office flop Another You, where Pryor's physical deterioration from multiple sclerosis was clearly noticeable.

In 1994, Wilder starred in the NBC sitcom Something Wilder. The show received poor reviews and lasted only one season. He went back to the small screen on 1999 appearing in three NBC television movies, most notably Alice in Wonderland. Three years later, Wilder guest-starred on two episodes of NBC's Will & Grace, winning a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor on a Comedy Series for his role as Mr. Stein, Will Truman's boss.

Personal life

Relationships

Wilder met his first wife, Mary Mercier, while studying at the HB Studio in New York. Although the couple had not been together long, they married on July 22, 1960. They spent long periods of times apart, eventually divorcing in 1965. A few months later, Wilder began dating Mary Joan Schutz, a friend of his sister. Schutz had a daughter, Katharine, from a previous marriage. When Katharine started calling Wilder "dad" he decided to do what he felt was "the right thing to do", marrying Shutz on October 27, 1967 and adopting Katherine that same year. Shutz and Wilder separated after seven years of marriage, with Shutz thinking that Wilder was having an affair with his Young Frankenstein co-star Madeline Kahn. After the divorce he briefly dated his other Frankenstein co-star Teri Garr. Wilder would eventually become estranged from Katherine.

Wilder met Saturday Night Live actress Gilda Radner on August 13, 1981, while filming Sidney Poitier's Hanky Panky. Radner was married to G. E. Smith at the time, but she and Wilder became inseparable friends. When filming of Hanky ended, Wilder found himself missing Radner, so he called her. The relationship grew and Radner eventually divorced Smith in 1982. She moved in with Wilder, and the couple married on September 14, 1984, in the south of France. The couple wanted to have children, but Radner suffered miscarriages and doctors could not determine the problem. After experiencing severe fatigue and suffering from pain in her upper legs on the set of Haunted Honeymoon, Radner sought medical treatment. Following a number of false diagnoses, it was determined that she had ovarian cancer in October 1986. Over the next year and a half, Radner battled the disease, receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments. The disease finally went into remission, giving the pair a respite, during which time, Wilder filmed See No Evil, Hear No Evil. By May 1989, the cancer returned and had metastasized. Radner died on May 20, 1989. Wilder later stated "I always thought she'd pull through."

Following Radner's death, Wilder became active in promoting cancer awareness and treatment, helping found the "Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center" in Los Angeles and co-founding Gilda's Club, a support group to raise awareness of cancer that began in New York City and now has branched throughout the country.

Semi-retirement and authorship

While preparing for his role as a deaf man in See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Wilder met Karen Webb (née Boyer), who was a clinical supervisor for the New York League for the Hard of Hearing. Webb coached him in lip reading. Following Gilda Radner's death, Wilder and Webb reconnected and on September 8, 1991, they married. The two live in Stamford, Connecticut, in the 1734 Colonial home that he shared with Radner. The Wilders spend most of their time painting watercolors, writing and participating in charitable efforts. In October 2001, he read from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as part of a special benefit performance held at the Westport Country Playhouse to aid families affected by the September 11, 2001 attacks. Also in 2001, Wilder donated a collection of scripts, correspondences, documents, photographs, and clipped images to the University of Iowa Libraries.

In 1998, Wilder collaborated on the book Gilda's Disease with oncologist Steven Piver, sharing personal experiences of Radner's struggle with ovarian cancer. Wilder himself was hospitalized with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1999, but confirmed in March 2005 that the cancer was in complete remission following chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant.

On March 1, 2005, Wilder released his highly-personal memoir Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, an account of his life covering everything from his childhood, up to Radner's death. Two years later, in March 2007, Wilder released his first novel My French Whore which is set during World War I. His second novel, The Woman Who Wouldn't, was released in March 2008.

Work

Film

Year Film Role Other notes
1967 Bonnie and Clyde Eugene Grizzard
1968 The Producers Leo Bloom Nominated - Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
1970 Start the Revolution Without Me The twins Claude and Philippe
Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx Quackser Fortune
1971 Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory Willy Wonka Nominated - Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1972 Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) Dr. Doug Ross
The Scarecrow Lord Ravensbane/The Scarecrow Television
1974 Rhinoceros Stanley Based on Eugène Ionesco's play Rhinoceros
Blazing Saddles Jim "The Waco Kid"
The Little Prince The Fox
Thursday's Game Harry Evers Television
Young Frankenstein Dr. Frankenstein co-written with Mel Brooks
Nominated - Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay
1975 The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother Sigerson Holmes also director and writer
1976 Silver Streak George Caldwell Nominated - Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1977 The World's Greatest Lover Rudy Valentine aka Rudy Hickman also producer, director, and writer
1979 The Frisco Kid Avram Belinski
1980 Sunday Lovers Skippy directed segment "Skippy"
Stir Crazy Skip Donahue
1982 Hanky Panky Michael Jordon
1984 The Woman in Red Teddy Pierce also director and writer
1986 Haunted Honeymoon Larry Abbot also director and writer
1989 See No Evil, Hear No Evil Dave Lyons also writer
1990 Funny About Love Duffy Bergman
1991 Another You George/Abe Fielding
1999 Murder In A Small Town Larry 'Cash' Carter Television
Alice in Wonderland The Mockturtle
The Lady In Question Larry 'Cash' Carter Television

Television

Stage

Publication

  • Piver, M. Steven and Gene Wilder. Gilda's Disease: Sharing Personal Experiences and a Medical Perspective On Ovarian Cancer. Broadway Books, 1998. ISBN 076790138X.
  • Wilder, Gene. Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art. St. Martin's Press, 2005. ISBN 031233706X.
  • Wilder, Gene. My French Whore. St. Martin's Press, 2007. ISBN 0312360576.
  • Wilder, Gene. The Woman Who Wouldn't. St. Martin's Press, 2008. ISBN 0312375786.

References

Bibliography

  • Piver, M. Steven and Gene Wilder. Gilda's Disease: Sharing Personal Experiences and a Medical Perspective On Ovarian Cancer. Broadway Books, 1998. ISBN 076790138X.
  • Radner, Gilda. It's Always Something. Simon and Shuster, 1989. ISBN 0671638688.
  • Wilder, Gene. Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art. St. Martin's Press, 2005. ISBN 031233706X.

External links

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