“And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges”. These words of Shakespeare’s fool Feste have rung, doom-laden and sonorous, in our ears throughout 2016 as, one by one, a seemingly endless column of icon of entertainment, statesmanship and invention have marched solemnly into the next life. And so it continues on August 29, with the announcement of the death, from complications arising from Alzheimer’s Disease, of another wise fool, gentle wit and powerhouse creator – Gene Wilder.
Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee on June 11, 1933, Wilder (who took his name from a mixture of a Thomas Wolfe character – Eugene Gant – and the great American storyteller Thornton Wilder) was not initially destined for the stage. His early teens were blighted by a period in a military institute in California, where he was subjected to anti-Semitic bullying and sexual assault before he returned home and threw himself into community theatre. Indeed, an air of suppressed trauma would underpin many of the characters which would endear him to audiences worldwide and guarantee him a place in Hollywood’s pantheon.
His first formal theatrical training would, however, take place in the UK, at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, of which he remained a fellow, supplemented by time at the HB Studio in New York and, later, under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.
Yet, for all his classical training, Wilder would remain beloved for his more eccentric roles, finally making a major mark in 1968 as the stressed and anxious accountant-turned-Broadway-fraudster Leo Bloom in The Producers – the first of his collaborations with Mel Brooks which would mark some of his most legendary work, leading to Young Frankenstein in 1974. A critical as well as a commercial hit, his energetic performance as Dr Frederick Frankenstein, the initially reluctant inheritor of the name, reputation and, subsequently, estate of his grandfather, the original and infamous Dr Frankenstein. Few who have a love of important comedic film would not cast a fond glance back to the hysterically funny rendition of Puttin’ on the Ritz which Wilder performed as Frankenstein with Peter Boyle’s tunelessly whinnying monster in evening wear attempting to match the tap routines and lyrics.
Other notable successes peppered his career, from Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) and the second of his several collaborations with the late Richard Pryor – Sir Sidney Poitier’s prison comedy Stir Crazy. Though widely regarded as a poorly scripted dud, the duo’s next outing, 1989’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil – with Wilder and Pryor as, respectively, deaf and blind men who team up to thwart a gang of thieves – has become something of a cult classic, and shored up Wilder’s penchant for wildly physical, emotionally turbulent comedy performance. It was directed by Arthur Hiller, who first brought the two together in 1976 murder-on-a-train comedy-thriller Silver Streak.
Ventures behind the camera as a director and writer, including The World’s Greatest Lover, The Woman in Red and Haunted Honeymoon were met with commercial and critical failure, yet Wilder remained one of the most cherished and publicly admired comic actors of his generation.
It is, however, for his starring role as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – the 1971 adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – that Wilder is cemented into the UK consciousness first and foremost. His performance – an eddying mix of the whimsical, the affectionate, the cruel, the macabre and the potentially insane – bubbles and roils from the moment of his first appearance, limping down to the factory gates before losing his cane, falling forward and somersaulting to his feet – a trick put in at Wilder’s request so that nobody would ever know if Wonka was telling the truth or lying.
Though initially a commercial flop which attracted the seething ire of Dahl himself, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, with its psychedelic sets, its daring creative decisions to tap into the darkest side of the human psyche in the course of a children’s film and its eminently hummable Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse score, has made – and will continue to make – Wilder a core part of generations of children’s cinematic upbringing.
From the early 1990s, Wilder slowed up his workload until, by the early 2000s, he was down to a few well-received cameos, including an Emmy Award-winning performance as Will Truman’s boss Mr Stein in Will and Grace on NBC, and some smaller-scale, choice work before declaring in 2008 that he did not like showbusiness, or rather “I like show, but I don’t like the business”.
An established author as well as a performer and director, he was married four times, including to Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner, whose last film appearance was in Haunted Honeymoon before her death in 1989 from ovarian cancer. Though he remarried, he was plagued by Radner’s loss, and set up a charity in her name, as well as co-writing a book with the oncologist Steven Piver on his experiences dealing with her ovarian cancer.
An actor of many contradictions – gentle yet steely, unpredictable yet dependable, wildly physical and deeply cerebral – Gene Wilder and his contribution to the arts cannot be summed up or even given a fraction of a grain of an iota of proper scrutiny, unpicking and appreciation in an obituary such as this, but it can – one hopes – be said without fear of contradiction: his was an enriching and variety-filled presence in a Hollywood often so jaded and stale. He made and challenged childhoods and innocence; he used Hollywood against itself; he could, with an anxious look or a patient smile, paint more than any screenwriter could imagine or cinematographer plan for. He was versatility itself and, perhaps, given his gradual withdrawal from the industry, he gave us the greatest gift of all – time to learn to live with his legacy before it was certain that that was all we had left of him.
His loss is enormous, but perhaps we can take some comfort from the possibility that, as a self-declared Jewish-Buddhist-Atheist, he may, in death, have finally been sublimated into a world of pure imagination.