We’ll Begin With a Spin: Gene Wilder’s 8 Unforgettable Roles
By Mikhail Lecaros
With a body of work spanning across six decades, including career-defining turns as a cowboy, a mad scientist, and the owner of a chocolate factory, Gene Wilder was well established as one of Hollywood’s favorite funny men, making it all the more tragic when news of his passing last week, at the age of 83, was made public.
Falling to Alzheimer’s Disease, Wilder’s family said that it had been the actor’s wish to have his illness remain hidden, to avoid disappointing the multitudes of fans worldwide who still recognized and greeted him as Willy Wonka. Following his retirement in 1991 (“I don’t like show business, I realized…I like show, but I don’t like the business.”), Wilder remained active until as recently as last year, when he portrayed the voice of grumpy alien “Elmer” on Yo Gabba Gabba!
Please join us now, as we pay tribute to a great performer with a fond look back at 8 of Gene Wilder’s most unforgettable characters (apologies to fans of The Little Prince and Another You), to show just why the man with the crazy eyes and wild hair was so beloved.
8. “The Hostage” in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Though he’s only in it for around 10 minutes or so, Wilder manages to make every second he’s onscreen count in one of cinema’s most critically acclaimed (and bloody) dramas. He plays against the film’s (then-) more famous leads, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, and Estelle Parsons, portraying an offbeat, overly-talkative hostage with a girlfriend of questionable age. His reaction when he finds out how old she really is – priceless.
7. “Mr. Stein” in Will and Grace (2003)
While his 1994 sitcom, Something Wilder, failed to get anyone excited, Wilder proved his TV comedy chops in a big way ten years later when he appeared in two episodes of hit show Will and Grace. Wilder was introduced as Mr. Stein, Will’s eccentric boss, whose time in a mental asylum is glossed over as having been spent running the nonexistent “London office.” Powered by this performance, the then-70-year-old Wilder finally won a major acting award, claiming an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.
6. “Skip” in Stir Crazy (1980)
The third-highest grossing film of 1980 (after The Empire Strikes Back and 9 to 5), this second big screen team-up of Wilder with standup legend Richard Pryor featured the former as Skip Donahue, a writer jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. The film centers on his friendship with his partner in (wrongly-accused) crime and fellow inmate Harry (Pryor), and their misadventures in planning to escape a maximum-security jail while preparing for the prison’s annual rodeo competition. A million monkeys with a million typewriters could not have come up with that last sentence.
5. “George” in Silver Streak (1976)
The first onscreen pairing of Wilder and stand-up legend Richard Pryor, which saw them trying to solve a mystery on (as well as in, around, and on top of) a moving train, plays like a prototypical buddy cop action comedy, except one where the cops are a book editor (Wilder) and a smalltime thief (Pryor). As the first successful interracial comedy duo in Hollywood history, Wilder and Pryor would build on the working relationship they had begun working on the script for Blazing Saddles and star in a total of four films together. Three more films, including Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Another You.
4. “The Waco Kid” in Blazing Saddles (1974)
Wilder came to the rescue here at the last minute when Brooks’ original choice of leading man was too drunk to perform on the first day of shooting. Not that you’d ever know, as Wilder owns the role of a former gunman who ends up being deputized by “Black Bart” (Cleavon Little, cast when the studio found Richard Pryor too controversial), the town’s new sheriff, who just happens to be black. Simultaneously a send up of race relations and a Fourth Wall-breaking skewering of the Western genre (that is probably the only movie to feature someone punching a horse), Blazing Saddles is high concept hilarity of a type that just isn’t made anymore.
3. “Leo Bloom” in The Producers (1968)
In his first major big screen role, Wilder received a Best Supporting Oscar nomination as the manic, conniving Leo Bloom, one half of the titular duo planning to score on insurance by staging the biggest flop in Broadway history. Rightfully recognized as a comedy classic and revived as an actual award-winning Broadway musical starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, The Producers features Wilder at his manic best as he and partner Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) manage to succeed, despite themselves. But seriously, with a title like “Springtime For Hitler”, who would have expected them to come out on top?
2. “Willy Wonka” in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Undoubtedly his most recognized work, Wilder played author Roald Dahl’s creation as a man whose numerous quirks belied his true intentions. Pegged for the role by director Mel Stuart after having heard him read a few lines, Wilder beat out the likes of Peter Sellers and Fred Astaire for the part. Since then, the tale of a successful chocolatier’s search for a successor has become a true family favorite, dwarfing subsequent attempts to adapt the beloved children’s book, including Tim burton’s disastrous 2005 version. Just try not to tear up now when you hear “Pure Imagination.”
1. “Dr. Frederick Frankenstein” in Young Frankenstein (1974)
While Willy Wonka may be his most recognized character, you were raised right if you know that Wilder’s finest performance was in this satirical take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Marking the zenith of Wilder and Brooks’ collaborations, Young Frankenstein was a straight-faced farce that took everything audiences had come to expect from traditional Frankenstein adaptations everything (including a decision to shoot in black and white) and turning those conventions on their ear. Boasting a witty script (by Wilder and Brooks) packed with brilliant one-liners (one of which inspired Aerosmith to write “Walk This Way”!) and memorable characters (It’s pronounced, “Eye-Gor”), it can definitely be argued that neither Wilder nor Brooks were ever able to clear the comedic bar they’d raised with Young Frankenstein.
Got any other favorite Gene Wilder moments? Tell us in the comments below!