Growing up we only had one TV in the house. It was a 26 inch, plastic wood sided model that sat on an entertainment center my father had built from scratch. Small by todays standards, our TV was my larger than life gateway to go to far away places and meet new people. One of those people I met was a kind and gentle faced man. His smile was warm and humble but at times he had a fury that marred his face in steely intensity . His anger was never scary though, it was funny. To be honest he was always funny. As a kid some of the humor may have gone over my head but with Gene Wilder delivering it I just knew it was comedic gold.
OF course one of my first exposures to Mr. Wilder was in the 1971 masterpiece, Willy Wonka. HIs portrayal of Wonka ran the course from slapstick to intense and it showcased Gene’s ability to take on any roll. The movie is still beloved today and there are zero reasons for it not to be. With a great assemble, Wilder was the rudder to the barge sailing through the twisted world of Ronald Dahl’s fanatical chocolate factory.
The next time I remember welcoming Mr. Wilder into our home was in the so politically incorrect it’s hilarious 1974 movie Blazing Saddles. Reteaming with Mel Brooks after the 1967 movie The Producers, it felt like they were a match made in comedy heaven. They teamed up again the same year with the Wilder written comedy, Young Frankenstein. Both movies pushed the envelope and helped shaped the comedies we have today, except they were much smarter than comedy fare nowadays. Wilder had a way about him under the eye of Brooks that is still unmatched today. It was because of this perfect matching that I got spoiled and expected all of Gene Wilders and Mel Brooks’ movies to be this good.
At this time in the very early ’80s when the VCR game was just getting its feet, my parents got to go back and see movies that they had missed in the theaters, like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. With one TV in the house I was along for the ride. This is also the time I saw other Gene Wilder films like The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother from 1975. Great movie that teamed Wilder up with some of his co-stars from Young Frankenstein.
Another was 1979’s The Frisco Kid which also starred Harrison Ford fresh off of Star Wars. It was a departure for me with Wilder because the movie had its fair share of Drama. In the film Wilder plays a Polish rabbi who wanders through the Old West on his way to lead a synagogue in San Francisco. On the way he meets up with Ford’s bank robber character and they form a friendship, and have many misadventures. This movie isn’t really talked about a lot and to be honest I have no idea of its standing nowadays but I loved it growing up. I haven’t seen it in years, while I revisit Wilder’s earlier films more often.
In the span of his career Gene Wilder teamed up with Richard Pryor for a total of four movies. Beginning in 1976’s Silver Streak, Wilder and Pryor created a great comedic duo that worked very well off of each other. The biggest of their movies together was 1980’s Stir Crazy. These two movies were fantastic and showcased both Wilder’s and Pryor’s comedic strong points. Later in their careers the duo made See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You. These movies failed to capture the same magic as the original team-ups of the actors but they definitely had their moments.
Another actor that Gene Wilder teamed up with was Saturday Night Live alum Gilda Radner. They teamed-up a total of three times, but their first film together was the most special for the duo. Hanky Panky was a flop and Wilder was even quoted as saying it was the “worst movie he ever made”, but it was where he met Radner. The couple were married in 1984, the same year the both starred with Kelly LeBrock in The Woman In Red. Two years later the husband and wife starred in what would be Radner’s last movie before her death in 1989 to cancer, Haunted Honeymoon. Outta the three films I am a fan of Hanky Panky and Haunted Honeymoon (which Wilder wrote and directed). The Woman In Red was a true departure of the comedy I knew Wilder for. It fell into the typical “sex romp” type films that flourished in the ’80s. Sadly (for me), Wilder starred in a few more movies in this vein and I missed the comedic styling’s he displayed in the ’70s.
After Gilda Radner’s death in 1989, Wilder starred in a couple more movies, guest starred on television shows, and had a show of his own called Something Wilder in 1994. Sadly by this time I was in High School and I wasn’t home enough in the evenings to watch TV, so I totally missed the boat on this show. The last credit Wilder has on IMDB is a guest spot on the children’s show Yo Gabba Gabba! If anyone has seen this show than they know it’s a bit off kilter, which is a perfect ending to Mr. Wilder’s acting resume because he returned to a world of pure imagination.
Gene Wilder was 83 at the time of his passing.