Gene Wilder is an iconic American film and stage actor, and writer. He is best known for his multiple collaborations with film director Mel Brooks, which produced such hits as Young Frankenstein, The Producers, and Blazing Saddles, and for his partner comedy work with Richard Pryor, especially in their first two films, Silver Streak and Stir Crazy. Additionally, when ovarian cancer claimed the life of his second wife, Gilda Radner, a beloved and gifted comedienne, Wilder became involved in a number of cancer advocacy groups to promote information about ovarian cancer, which also took his mother’s life. In recent years, Wilder has worked primarily as a writer, first producing his autobiography, several teleplays, and then writing two novels released in 2007 and 2008.
Jerome Silberman, born in 1933, didn’t change his name to Gene Wilder until he was in his 20s, choosing the name Wilder to reference the author Thornton Wilder. He caught the acting bug early, with a first performance as Romeo’s servant in a production of Romeo and Juliet when he was 15 years old. His interest in acting led to study of the art at University of Iowa, where he graduated in 1955; he also pursued an active interest in fencing. His career in theater was temporarily cut short when he was drafted into the US army in 1956, where he served two years in the Army medical corps.
Once released from the Army, Gene Wilder continued to train as an actor, frequently supporting himself by teaching fencing. Such study was rewarded with several small parts in off Broadway plays. Wilder met Mel Brooks due to his work in the theater, when he was cast in a play with Anne Bancroft, Brooks’ future wife. It took several years for their first collaboration, The Producers to be filmed, and it was not Wilder’s first on-screen performance. Instead, he won accolades for a supporting performance in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. The Producers was released in 1968, garnering Wilder a nomination for best supporting actor, and Mel Brooks an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Though Gene Wilder showed exceptional promise in his first few roles, other films that followed were not immediately popular. Start the Revolution Without Me co-starring Donald Sutherland flopped, as did Quackser. Even his 1971 performance in Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory didn’t translate to box office success, though it is now a cult classic film, loved by many. It wasn’t until 1972, when Wilder took a role in the Woody Allen film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) that Wilder began to see his acting chops earn the attention that many critics felt he definitely deserved.
Following his success in Woody Allen’s film, Gene Wilder began work on the screenplay Young Frankenstein, that earned accolades for both his writing and acting performance. He followed this first writing endeavor with the little known gem of a film The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, which served as his directorial debut. More success followed with his collaboration with Richard Pryor on several films.
Other collaborations were not as well received. His 1980s films with wife Gilda Radner were not box office successes, and critics considered later films with Pryor poor efforts. In 1989, Gene Wilder’s life was struck by tragedy as Gilda lost her battle with ovarian cancer, but this in the end translated to extraordinary activism on his part to raise awareness about the cancer, including his co-founding of Gilda’s Club.
In the 1990s, Wilder continued writing, briefly appeared in his own sitcom, and then was noted for several sitcom appearances on Will & Grace in the early 2000s. He also co-wrote and starred in two productions for the A&E network, The Lady in Question and Murder in a Small Town. Wilder remarried in 1991, and remained a prolific writer despite his own battle with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosed in 1999. In addition to his work on his A&E productions, Gene Wilder returned to films with voiceover work in the animated film Over the Hedge in 2006.