After more than 30 years in show business, the frizzy-headed comic actor Gene Wilder, who has died aged 83, was most associated with his second film role, that of Leo Bloom, the hyperneurotic accountant in Mel Brooks’ comedy The Producers (1967). It established Wilder’s screen persona – an initially well-balanced individual transformed by even the most minor crisis into a whining bundle of nerves.
When Wilder was in London to star in Neil Simon’s play Laughter on the 23rd Floor in 1996, the actor with the wistful smile and melancholy eyes told me that he could not play that kind of character again: “I’m probably too healthy emotionally. In those days I was afraid of my own shadow, I was afraid of life. When my life got straightened out, the parts changed.”
Wilder was returning to the stage, his first love, after many years in films. He started acting when he was 13. “I thought the only acting was in the theatre. I had wanted to be an actor ever since I saw Lee J Cobb in Death of a Salesman.”
On gaining a degree in communication and theatre arts from the University of Iowa, he was determined to make acting his profession and left for Britain, enrolling at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. However, he became dissatisfied with traditional English teaching methods, and returned to New York, where he was accepted from thousands of applicants into the method acting guru Lee Strasberg’s class at the Actors Studio.
Wilder made his off-Broadway debut in 1960 as Frankie Bryant in Arnold Wesker’s Roots. He followed it with the bewildered hotel valet in Graham Greene’s comedy The Complaisant Lover, in a Broadway production with Michael Redgrave and Googie Withers, giving a performance for which he won the Clarence Derwent award, for a promising newcomer in a supporting role. He returned to Broadway in the spring of 1963 as the Chaplain in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, starring Anne Bancroft, whose boyfriend and future husband, Mel Brooks, promised Wilder a part in a movie he intended to write.
Thus, four years later, with his wildly funny performance in The Producers, Gene Wilder, comic film actor, was born.
In fact, he had been born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of William Silberman and his wife Jeanne (nee Baer). His father was a Russian-Jewish immigrant father who prospered in the US as an importer and manufacturer of novelties and souvenirs. His Chicago-born mother, of Polish descent, suffered a heart attack when Jerome was eight years old, and remained in frail health.
To cheer her up, the boy improvised comedy skits, so that from an early age he was aware of the coexistence of laughter and pain. Despite his later change of name - “I picked Gene because of the hero of Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward Angel and Wilder from Thornton Wilder, whose Our Town was my favourite play” – he still felt he was Jerry Silberman trying to gain his parents’ attention by showing off.
After his screen debut in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), in which he played the jumpy undertaker whisked off on a perilous joyride by the eponymous couple, Wilder’s career really took off when he was Oscar-nominated for The Producers, in which he made hysteria hysterical: “My blanket! My blue blanket! Gimme my blue blanket! Oohhhh! Aaaahh! Mmmmmmm! Mmmmmm! Aahhhh. I’m sorry. I don’t like people touching my blue blanket. It’s not important, it’s a minor compulsion, I can deal with it if I want to,” Bloom shrieks, clinging to his handkerchief-sized piece of security blanket.
He continued to explore the off-beat: “What I liked to do was take something bizarre and play it straight, like in Woody Allen’s Everything You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Sex... , when I fell in love with a sheep.” Variations on this character were offered by Wilder in a number of films, including his popular comedy partnership with the ostensibly cooler Richard Pryor in Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991).
By way of contrast to urban neurosis, Wilder brought beguiling eccentricity to the title role in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), an enjoyable film based on Roald Dahl’s book, and characters from two Mel Brooks parodies: the Waco Kid, an alcoholic ex-gunfighter in Blazing Saddles, and an American descendant of the god-playing doctor in Young Frankenstein (both 1974).
Wilder’s own first two films as director-star, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975), in which he played the insanely jealous Sigerson Holmes, and The World’s Greatest Lover (1977), his homage to silent movies, were from the school of Mel Brooks, but they had a quirky humour all their own and were stylishly made. However, with the Woman in Red (1984), a vulgar and shallow remake of the less crass French comedy Pardon Mon Affaire (Yves Robert, 1976), and with Haunted Honeymoon (1986), an old dark house pastiche, it seemed as if this very funny man needed the discipline of a director other than himself.
The latter films featured Wilder’s wife, the gifted comedian Gilda Radner, whom he married in 1984. She was his third wife, after his marriages to the playwright-actor Mary Mercier and Mary Joan Schutz had ended in divorce.
Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989, aged 42. “I had one great blessing – I was so dumb,” Wilder explained. “I believed even three weeks before she died she would make it. She never saw my fear. If I had known, I don’t know if I could have acted well enough.”
Intent on deriving something constructive from her death, Wilder spoke out to urge doctors to look for the family links that could lead to earlier diagnosis. “Gilda didn’t have to die,” he tearfully told a Congressional subcommittee. In 1993, he opened Gilda’s Club, a support centre in New York for cancer patients and their families.
In 1999, Wilder was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, though by 2005 was in remission. In recent years he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
His retirement from acting came after he took a guest role in the TV sitcom Will & Grace, which brought him an Emmy award (2003). Thereafter he turned to writing – three novels, a collection of stories and a memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art (2005). That search had involved a lot of psychotherapy, and Wilder claimed to have read everything by Sigmund Freud that was available in English.
In 1991 he married his fourth wife, Karen Boyer, a speech pathologist. She survives him.
• Gene Wilder (Jerome Silberman), actor and director, born 11 June 1933; died 28 August 2016
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