He had a great look for a comic actor: Wide eyes, crazy hair, a big nose and a warm, slightly crooked smile. And most people will remember Gene Wilder from his comedies. His association with Mel Brooks led Wilder to star in “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein.” There’s a good chance you consider one of those the funniest movie you’re even seen.
But Wilder, who died Monday at age 83, did a lot of dramatic work early in his career. He starred on Broadway in Brecht’s “Mother Courage,” in a production directed by Anne Bancroft. He appeared in a TV version of “Death of a Salesman” with Lee J. Cobb and many of us got our first glimpse of him in “Bonnie and Clyde.”
But after Bancroft brought Wilder to the attention of Brooks, her husband, Wilder became one of the most ubiquitous, respected and popular comedy actors of the 1970s and ’80s. In addition to his films with Brooks, Wilder’s best-known films include “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Silver Streak” (the first of his four films with Richard Pryor), and several films in which he co-starred with Gilda Radner. Wilder and Radner met on the first of those films and later married.
After Radner’s death, Wilder started a support group for cancer patients. In 1999, the year he made his last film, “The Lady in Question,” he was himself diagnosed with cancer (specifically, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma). But it was reportedly complications of Alzheimer’s disease that caused his death.
Wilder’s gone, but his characters live on: Leo Bloom, Willy Wonka, The Waco Kid and Dr. Frederick Frankenstein will always be with us.