Jerome Silberman (June 11, 1933 – August 29, 2016), known professionally as Gene Wilder, was an American actor, screenwriter, director, producer, singer-songwriter and author.
Wilder directed, wrote, and starred in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, a 1975 American musical comedy film.
Old Vic, Army, and HB Studio
Following his 1955 graduation from Iowa, he was accepted at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England. After six months of studying fencing, Wilder became the first freshman to win the All-School Fencing Championship. Desiring to study Stanislavski's system, he returned to the U.S., living with his sister and her family in Queens. Wilder enrolled at the HB Studio.
Wilder was drafted into the Army on September 10, 1956. At the end of recruit training, he was assigned to the medical corps and sent to Fort Sam Houston for training. He was then given the opportunity to choose any post that was open, and wanting to stay near New York City to attend acting classes at the HB Studio, he chose to serve as paramedic in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Valley Forge Army Hospital, in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. In November 1957, his mother died from ovarian cancer. He was discharged from the army a year later and returned to New York. A scholarship to the HB Studio allowed him to become a full-time student. At first living on unemployment insurance and some savings, he later supported himself with odd jobs such as a limousine driver and fencing instructor.
Wilder's first professional acting job was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he played the Second Officer in Herbert Berghof's production of Twelfth Night. He also served as a fencing choreographer.
After three years of study with Berghof and Uta Hagen at the HB Studio, Charles Grodin told Wilder about Lee Strasberg's method acting. Grodin persuaded him to leave the studio and begin studying with Strasberg in his private class. Several months later, Wilder was accepted into the Actors Studio. Feeling that "Jerry Silberman in Macbeth" did not have the right ring to it, he adopted a stage name. He chose "Wilder" because it reminded him of Our Town author Thornton Wilder, while "Gene" came from Thomas Wolfe's first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. He also liked "Gene" because as a boy, he was impressed by a distant relative, a World War II bomber navigator who was "handsome and looked great in his leather flight jacket." He later said that he could not see Gene Wilder playing Macbeth, either. After joining the Actors Studio, he slowly began to be noticed in the off-Broadway scene, thanks to performances in Sir Arnold Wesker's Roots and in Graham Greene's The Complaisant Lover, for which Wilder received the Clarence Derwent Award for "Best Performance by an Actor in a Nonfeatured Role." One of Wilder's early stage credits was playing the socially awkward mental patient Billy Bibbit in the original 1963-64 Broadway adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest opposite star Kirk Douglas.
In 1963, Wilder was cast in a leading role in Mother Courage and Her Children, a production starring Anne Bancroft, who introduced Wilder to her boyfriend Mel Brooks. A few months later, Brooks mentioned that he was working on a screenplay called Springtime for Hitler, for which he thought Wilder would be perfect in the role of Leo Bloom. Brooks elicited a promise from Wilder that he would check with him before making any long-term commitments. Months went by, and Wilder toured the country with different theatre productions, participated in a televised CBS presentation of Death of a Salesman, and was cast for his first role in a film—a minor role in Arthur Penn's 1967 Bonnie and Clyde. After three years of not hearing from Brooks, Wilder was called for a reading with Zero Mostel, who was to be the star of Springtime for Hitler and had approval of his co-star. Mostel approved, and Wilder was cast for his first leading role in a feature film, 1968's The Producers.
The Producers eventually became a cult comedy classic, with Mel Brooks winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and Wilder being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Nevertheless, Brooks' first directorial effort did not do well at the box office and was not well received by all critics; New York Times critic Renata Adler reviewed the film and described it as "black college humor".
In 1969, Wilder relocated to Paris, accepting a leading role in Bud Yorkin's Start the Revolution Without Me, a comedy that took place during the French Revolution. After shooting ended, Wilder returned to New York, where he read the script for Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx and immediately called Sidney Glazier, who produced The Producers. Both men began searching for the perfect director for the film. Jean Renoir was the first candidate, but he would not be able to do the film for at least a year, so British-Indian director Waris Hussein was hired. With Margot Kidder co-starring with Wilder, it was filmed on location in Dublin, and at the nearby Ardmore Studios, in August and September 1969.
In 1971, Wilder auditioned to play Willy Wonka in Mel Stuart's film adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. After reciting some lines, director Mel Stuart immediately offered him the role. Before Wilder was officially cast for the role, Fred Astaire, Joel Grey, Ron Moody and Jon Pertwee were all considered. Spike Milligan was Roald Dahl's original choice to play Willy Wonka. Peter Sellers even begged Dahl for the role.
The film was not a big success on its opening weekend, although it received positive reviews from critics such as Roger Ebert, who compared it to The Wizard of Oz. The film currently holds an 89% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes with the critical consensus stating "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is strange yet comforting, full of narrative detours that don't always work but express the film's uniqueness". The British rock band Coldplay, as a tribute to Wilder, performed a rendition of "Pure Imagination," a Wilder song in the film.
The three films Wilder appeared in following The Producers were box office failures: Start the Revolution and Quackser seemed to audiences poor copies of Mel Brooks films, while Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was not a commercial success, although it later gained a cult following and an Oscar nomination for Best Score, as well as a Golden Globe award nomination for Wilder.
When Woody Allen offered him a role in one segment of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), Wilder accepted, hoping this would be the hit to put an end to his series of flops. Everything... was a hit, grossing over $18 million in the United States alone against a $2-million budget.
After Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), Wilder began working on a script he called Young Frankenstein. After he wrote a two-page scenario, he called Mel Brooks, who told him that it seemed like a "cute" idea, but showed little interest. A few months later, Wilder received a call from his agent, Mike Medavoy, who asked if he had anything where he could include Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman, his two new clients. Having just seen Feldman on television, Wilder was inspired to write a scene that takes place at Transylvania Station, where Igor and Frederick meet for the first time. The scene was later included in the film almost verbatim. Medavoy liked the idea and called Brooks, asking him to direct. Brooks was not convinced, but having spent four years working on two box-office failures, he decided to accept. While working on the Young Frankenstein script, Wilder was offered the part of the Fox in the musical film adaptation of Saint Exupéry's classic book, The Little Prince. When filming was about to begin in London, Wilder received an urgent call from Brooks, who was filming Blazing Saddles, offering Wilder the role of the "Waco Kid" after Dan Dailey dropped out at the last minute, while Gig Young became too ill to continue. Wilder shot his scenes for Blazing Saddles and immediately afterwards filmed The Little Prince.
After Young Frankenstein was written, the rights were to be sold to Columbia Pictures, but after having trouble agreeing on the budget, Wilder, Brooks, and producer Michael Gruskoff went with 20th Century Fox, where both Brooks and Wilder had to sign five-year contracts. Young Frankenstein was a commercial success, with Wilder and Brooks receiving Best Adapted Screenplay nominations at the 1975 Oscars, losing to Francis Coppola and Mario Puzo for their adaptation of The Godfather Part II. While filming Young Frankenstein, Wilder had an idea for a romantic musical comedy about a brother of Sherlock Holmes. Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn agreed to participate in the project, and Wilder began writing what became his directorial début, 1975's The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother.
In 1975, Wilder's agent sent him a script for a film called Super Chief. Wilder accepted, but told the film's producers that he thought the only person who could keep the film from being offensive was Richard Pryor. Pryor accepted the role in the film, which had been renamed Silver Streak, the first film to team Wilder and Pryor. They became Hollywood's first successful interracial movie comedy duo.
While filming Silver Streak, Wilder began working on a script for The World's Greatest Lover, inspired by Fellini's The White Sheik. Wilder wrote, produced, and directed The World's Greatest Lover, which premièred in 1977, but was a critical failure.The Frisco Kid (1979) was Wilder's next project. The film was to star John Wayne, but he dropped out and was replaced by Harrison Ford, then an up-and-coming actor.
In 1980 Wilder teamed up again with Richard Pryor in Stir Crazy, directed by Sidney Poitier. Pryor was struggling with a severe cocaine addiction, and filming became difficult, but once the film premiered, it became an international success. New York magazine listed "Skip Donahue" (Wilder) and "Harry Monroe" (Pryor) as number nine on their 2007 list of "The Fifteen Most Dynamic Duos in Pop Culture History", and the film has often appeared in "best comedy" lists and rankings.
Poitier and Wilder became friends, with the pair working together on a script called Traces—which became 1982's Hanky Panky, the film where Wilder met comedian Gilda Radner. Through the remainder of the decade, Wilder and Radner worked on several projects together. After Hanky Panky, Wilder directed his third film, 1984's The Woman in Red, which starred Wilder, Radner, and Kelly Le Brock. The Woman in Red was not well received by the critics, nor was their next project, 1986's Haunted Honeymoon, which failed to attract audiences. The Woman in Red did win an Academy Award for Best Original Song for Stevie Wonder's song "I Just Called to Say I Love You".
TriStar Pictures wanted to produce another film starring Wilder and Pryor, and Wilder agreed to do See No Evil, Hear No Evil only if he were allowed to rewrite the script. The studio agreed, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil premiered on May 1989 to mostly negative reviews. Many critics praised Wilder and Pryor, as well as Kevin Spacey's performance, but they mostly agreed that the script was terrible. Roger Ebert called it "a real dud"; the Deseret Morning News described the film as "stupid", with an "idiotic script" that had a "contrived story" and too many "juvenile gags", while Vincent Canby called it "by far the most successful co-starring vehicle for Mr. Pryor and Mr. Wilder", also acknowledging that "this is not elegant movie making, and not all of the gags are equally clever".
After starring as a political cartoonist who falls in love in the 1990 film Funny About Love, Wilder performed in one final movie with Pryor, the 1991 feature Another You, in which Pryor's physical deterioration from multiple sclerosis was clearly noticeable. It was Pryor's last starring role in a film (he appeared in a few cameos before he died in 2005) and also marked Wilder's last appearance in a feature film. His last two movies were not financially successful. Wilder's remaining work consisted of television movies and guest appearances in TV shows.
Wilder was inducted into the Wisconsin Performing Arts Hall of Fame, at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Tuesday April 9, 1991.
In 1994, Wilder starred in the NBC sitcom Something Wilder. The show received poor reviews and lasted only one season. He went back to the small screen in 1999, appearing in three television movies, one of which was the NBC adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. The other two, Murder in a Small Town and The Lady in Question, were mystery movies for A&E TV that were cowritten by Wilder, in which he played a theatre director turned amateur detective.
Three years later, Wilder guest-starred on two episodes of NBC's Will & Grace, winning a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor on a Comedy Series for his role as Mr. Stein, Will Truman's boss. This ended Wilder's screen career; from 2003 forward, Wilder focused his creative energies on writing novels and stories, as well as painting.