Remembering Gene Wilder: His Work Was NOT Doo-Doo
2016 has been brutal. Whatever Elder God it is that we have angered is making us puny mortals pay, harshly, for our sins. It seems as though, instead of causing bouts of madness or sucking our souls deep into the abyss of the cosmos, they’re assaulting our hearts; and taking away from the public consciousness those we loved most. David Bowie, Abe Vigoda, Alan Rickman, Doris Roberts, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Anton Yelchin (to name a few) have all stripped themselves from this mortal coil at an alarming pace making many of us wonder just who will be next. And yesterday, we all learned of the passing of Gene Wilder; possibly one of the greatest entertainers to ever have lived.
So, today, we at Terror Time wanted to take a little time to remember him and his work. For far too often people slip away without the public having really known them. From his time as The Waco Kid, to the neurotic Leo Bloom, to the insanely brilliant Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced “Frank-en- shteen”) – Gene Wilder brought so much to life to every role he played, it would be a detriment for us not to comment on that today.
Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman on June 11 th 1933 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His mother, Jeane, was a caring and loving stay at home mother. His father, William, worked as a manufacturer and salesman of novelty items. At the age of 26 he adopted “Gene Wilder” for his professional name, due to his affinity for the character Eugene Gant from the film LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL and playwright Thornton Wilder.
He first became interested in acting at age 8. During this time, his mother was suffering with a case of rheumatic fever and, in an effort to comfort her; the doctor suggested he “try to make her laugh.” At age 15, after a traumatic experience at the Black-Foxe military institute, he became heavily involved with the local theatre community; eventually landing his first paid gig as Balthasar in a production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” From there, acting became Wilder’s main focus.
He went on to attend the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in England but eventually came back to the United States hoping to study the Stanislavsky method of acting. After serving in the Army (luckily being stationed in New York and attending acting classes at the HB Studio), Wilder was accepted into the Actors Studio and began making himself known on the Broadway and Off Broadway stage circuit.
In 1963, he was cast in a leading role in “Mother Courage and Her Children” alongside Anne Bancroft who ended up introducing Wilder to her boyfriend, Mel Brooks. He happened to mention that he was working on a screenplay called SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER, and felt he [Wilder] would be perfect for the leading role.
Three years later, Gene got a call from Mel and was cast as Leo Bloom alongside Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock in 1968’s THE PRODUCERS. It was all uphill from here.
The 1970’s brought Gene success as Willy Wonka in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. Though the film was originally a box office flop,(parents deemed the moral “too cruel” for their children) it eventually became highly revered and lauded for its’ brilliant adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel. Wilder’s performance especially was highly regarded. He then went on to portray the Waco Kid in BLAZING SADDLES, another Mel Brooks project.
Horror fans will most likely remember Wilder for perhaps his most zany and insane role, the brilliant madman Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Frank-en- shteen”) in Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Arguably one of the earliest successful (and most effective) horror/comedy films, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN tells the story of Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Frank-en- shteen”), a lecturer at an American medical school. His grandfather, the mad scientist of the Mary Shelly novel and 1934 film FRANKENSTEIN, has left his family name tarnished, making Frederick the target of ridicule and skepticism from his peers.
After a solicitor informs him that he has inherited his family estate in Transylvania after the passing of his great-grandfather, Frederick travels to Europe in order to inspect the property. At the Transylvania train station, he meets Igor (pronounced “Eye-gor”) and Inga who assist him on his journey to the estate. As the story unfolds, Frederick unleashes his inner mad scientist and picks up the work where his grandfather (and great-grandfather before him) left off.
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN remains one of the most brilliant parodies to ever have graced cinema screens. The performance by Wilder (and the rest of the cast, honestly) is one for the books. The devotion to lunacy makes YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN one of those cinematic gems that can be visited and revisited again and again without losing any of its’ luster. Wilder was not afraid to commit to crazy. He was a special performer unlike many others.
In 1986, Wilder took another dive into horror/comedy alongside his then wife Gilda Radner and Dom DeLuise with HAUNTED HONEYMOON, which unfortunately flopped at the box office.
Regardless, his legacy as an actor and performer of both stage and screen is one to be revered. He was born to entertain. Some may say it was his destiny. Which, to quote Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced “Frank-en- shteen”: “Destiny! Destiny! No escaping that for me! Destiny! Destiny!” He was one of the greats. He provided laughs like none other and was a master as his craft.
We at Tom Holland’s Terror Time tip our hats to him and our thoughts go out to his family in friends in their time of need.
While Gene Wilder wasn’t exclusively a staple in the horror community his work in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and HAUNTED HONEYMOON no doubt paved the way for titles like SHAUN OF THE DEAD, TUCKER AND DALE VS EVIL, SLITHER, and countless others.
He was a figure of brilliance regardless of where your fandom may lie. And one thing is for certain, he will surely be missed.
Rest in Peace, Gene. May you and Peter Boyle put on the Ritz for all of eternity. Your work, unlike your grandfather’s, was certainly not doo-doo.
Follow Ian Donegan on Twitter @ianjdonegan for more absurdity.