Gene Wilder is an American actor and writer most famous for playing Willy Wonka in the 1971 film, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Wilder has been one of the most successful actors of his time. He has been nominated for numerous Academy Awards. He stopped acting around 2003, and now spends most of his time writing. He is still receiving critical acclaim to this day for his work, and is considered one of the most influential people in film from the 20th century.
Born on June 11th, 1933, by the name of Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Gene Wilder is the son of William and Jeanne Silberman. He first became interested in acting at the age of 8, when his mother had a disease and the doctor told Gene to “try and make her laugh.” He later saw his sister acting when he was 11 at a play and he was very interested. After the play he asked his sister’s teacher if he would take him as his student. The teacher told him that if Gene still wanted to act when he turned 13, he would take him in as his student. Wilder called the teacher the very day he turned 13, and the teacher accepted him.
Gene’s mother didn’t think that Wisconsin was the best place for him to showcase his talents, so she sent him to Black-Foxe, an institute in Hollywood, California. Wilder didn’t have a good time, however, as he wrote that he was bullied and sexually assaulted because of the fact that he was Jewish, and most of the other boys in the school were not. Gene soon returned home and became active at the local theater community. For the first time in his life, at age 15, he performed in front of a paying audience, as Balthasar in a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
He then went to college and studied Communication and Theater Arts at the University of Iowa. After graduating in 1955, he was accepted into Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in England. There he learned how to fence, and he became the first freshman to win the All-School Fencing Championship. He later returned to the United States to live with his sister and join the HB Studio.
On September 10th, 1956, Wilder was drafted into the United States Army. He went to recruit training, and soon after he was assigned to medical corps and sent to Fort Sam Houston to complete his training. Since he was given the freedom to choose his location, he chose to serve as a paramedic in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Valley Forge Army Hospital, in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, so that he would be close to New York City where he could continue attending his classes at the HB Studio.
In 1958, after he had learned his mother had died from ovarian cancer, he was discharged from the army and moved to New York. He received a scholarship from HB Studio and was able to become a full time student there.
When he turned 26, he decided to adopt “Gene Wilder” as his professional name. His reasoning was “I had always like Gene because of Thomas Wolfe’s character Eugene Gant in Look Homeward, Angel, and Of Time and the River. And I was always a great admirer of Thornton Wilder.”
After his three years of studying at the HB Studio, Wilder learned of Lee Starasberg’s method acting from his friend Charles Grodin. Grodin told Wilder that he should leave the HB Studio and instead learn from Lee Starasberg. He then began to perform in Off Broadway, getting noticed and even receiving a Clarence Derwent Award for “Best Performance by an Actor in a Nonfeatured Role” in Graham Greene’s The Complaisant Lover.
Wilder was cast in a leading role in Mother Courage and Her Children, alongside actress Anne Bancroft. She introduced Gene to her then boyfriend Mel Brooks. Brooks had been working on a screenplay called Springtime for Hitler, and he though Wilder would be the perfect fit in the role of character Leo Bloom. After participating in a few other films, he finally heard back from Brooks three years later. Wilder was called to do a reading with Zero Mostel, who was to be the star of Springtime for Hitler, and he got to choose his co star. He agreed to let Wilder play alongside him, and shortly after Wilder was cast for his first leading role in the 1968 film, The Producers.
The Producers was not a big success, as it did poorly in the box office and was not critically successful. It wasn’t until many years later that it became a cult classic and won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and Wilder was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
After a few more years of acting in minor films, in 1971 Wilder auditioned for the part of Willy Wonka in the Mel Stuart film adaption of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He recited a few lines, and as he was leaving the auditioning station Mel Stuart ran after him and offered him the role immediately. While Gene was at first undecided when he learned more abou his role, he eventually accepted the role. He said the one condition he had for him to accept was: “When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself… but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”
When Stuart asked Wilder why, he said, “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.” Before the movie was released, Wilder said in an interview with Robert Ebert that “It’s based on Roald Dahl’s classic kids’ book, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,'” Wilder said, “and it’s about this fabulous candy manufacturer named Willie Wonka, played by me, who puts five golden tickets in five chocolate bars so that five children from five corners of the earth can go on a tour of the famous Mr. Wonka’s factory. At least, that’s what they think is going to happen.”
When Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory was released, it was, like The Producers, not a commercial success, as many families thought the story was “too cruel” for children to understand, and it didn’t attract many family audiences. Years later, it gained a cult following and Wilder was nominated for a Golden Globe award.
When Wilder landed a role in Woody Allen’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), he finally was able to end his string of flops. The movie was a huge hit, critically and commercially.
Wilder then began to work on a movie script he called Young Frankenstein. When he first showed Mel Brooks the script, he was not impressed, but after he finished it and wrote a new scene including Marty Feldman, Brooks finally agreed to direct it after his string of poorly received films. Young Frankenstein was a big success, with Wilder and Brooks both receiving Oscar nominations. Wilder soon after started to write what would become his directorial debut, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.
After two decades of writing, directing, and acting in numerous movies, Wilder starred alongside Richard Pryor in the 1991 movie Another You. It was not well received and is considered a flop, and it was also the last time Wilder and Pryor ever acted in a feature film. Wilder continued acting on the small screen, with a 1999 appearance in the NBC adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.
When Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was remade in 2005 as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Wilder was not enthusiastic. “I think it’s an insult. Johnny Depp, I think, is a good actor. But I don’t care for the director. He’s a talented man, but I don’t care for him doing stuff like he did.” This man is Tim Burton, who directed the remake under Warner Brothers.
Wilder collaborated with Steven Piver on the book Gilda’s Disease, sharing personal experiences of his and his mother’s battles with cancer. Then in 2005, he released his memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, a story of his life. He released his first novel in 2007, My French Whore, and his second novel The Women Who Wouldn’t was released in March 2008. He would release several other books and stories while appearing in some as well.
Soon after that, Alec Baldwin interviewed Wilder about his career. Wilder said that he was retired from acting for good. “I don’t like show business, I realized,” he explained. “I like show, but I don’t like the business.”
Wilder released a few more books, and in a 2013 interview with Time Out New York magazine he was asked if he would act again if the right movie came his way, and he said: “I’m tired of watching the bombing, shooting, killing, swearing and 3-D. I get 52 movies a year sent to me, and maybe there are three good ones. That’s why I went into writing. It’s not that I wouldn’t act again. I’d say, ‘Give me the script. If it’s something wonderful, I’ll do it.’ But I don’t get anything like that. Once in a while, there was a nice, good film, but not very many. … I didn’t want to do 3-D, for instance. I didn’t want to do ones that were just bombing and swearing. If someone says ‘Ah, go f–k yourself,’ if it came from a meaningful place, I’d understand it. But if you go to some movies, can’t they just stop and talk once in a while?”
Gene Wilder Death Update
Sad news has come today on August 29th, 2016 as it appears that Gene Wilder has passed away. Gene passed away in his home due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. We wish him and his loved ones the best in these hard times.