Gene Wilder: A Manic Comic Genius

From “The Producers” to “Young Frankenstein” to “Willy Wonka,” the Mel Brooks muse tapped a gamut of emotions

Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman, but his stage name proved to be a well-chosen moniker.

The comic actor, in his greatest roles, earned via all-out commitment dangerous laughs by portraying the wild mood shifts of a man perpetually on the verge of a breakdown – and explosion.

In "The Producers," Wilder's milquetoast, blanket-toting accountant Leo Bloom transforms into a maniac who pounces on Zero Mostel's larger-than-life theatrical charlatan, Max Bialystock, punctuating each blow with a cry of "Fat! Fat! Fat!"

In "Young Frankenstein," Wilder's medical-school-professor-turned-mad-scientist, Frederick Frankenstein ("that's Franken-SHTEEN!"), goes gently into a cell to calm the hulking monster he wrought – only to frantically rescind his instructions not to be set free under any circumstances. "What's the matter with you people?" he screams. "I was joking!"

In "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," Wilder's dancing, singing mood-swing in a top hat turns viciously on Golden Ticket recipient Charlie Bucket and Grandpa Joe, delaying the ostensible kiddie film's happy ending. "You get nothing! You lose! Good day, sir!" Wonka rages.

Wilder, who died Sunday at age 83, produced a gamut of emotions for comic effect with an ability that exceeded even the purest of imaginations. While his manic, unpredictable characters changed from second to second, you could count on Gene Wilder, at his best, to give performances guaranteed to last forever in the collective pop cultural memory. 

During his 1960s to 1980s hey-day, he imbued his greatest screen creations, however varied, with an exasperated Everyman quality. That held true for Wilder’s washed-up gunslinger battling the bottle in Mel Brook’s "Blazing Saddles” as much as for his young doctor who throws away his idyllic life to guzzle Woolite over a fetching sheep named Daisy in Woody Allen's "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask).”

But Wilder was no solo act – from Mostel to Cleavon Little to Madeline Kahn to Teri Garr to even Daisy, he rarely stole a scene alone. He struck his greatest comic chemistry with Richard Pryor, producing the hits "Silver Streak" and "Stir Crazy," as well as the underrated "See No Evil, Hear No Evil."

The two seemingly very different personalities packed a common knack for pushing comedy to the edge. Case in point: The “Stir Crazy” scene in which Pryor’s and Wilder’s characters trade off meltdowns as they enter prison. Pryor’s attempted words of inspiration (“Don’t mess up – just think about our people”) can’t stop Wilder from freaking out on a guard who clubbed him: “No more hitting! Did you hear what just I said? No-more-hitting!”

Wilder's strongest behind-the-scenes collaborator, of course, was Brooks, who skillfully tapped the frizzy-haired actor’s deepest angst while directing him in "The Producers," "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein." They teamed on the script for "Young Frankenstein," which drew hilarity as much as from a spot-on parody of 1930s horror movies as from one unhinged doctor’s very 1970s identity crisis.

In the end, Wilder's Frankenstein discovers his true gift as he gleefully shares the sweet mystery of life with Garr’s Inga. Fans will be forever grateful that Wilder shared his talent for mining the mysteries of the inner life, yielding unfettered emotions that made us laugh until we cried.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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