What Do You Remember Most About Gene Wilder
A biographer of the actor is opening up about the dueling interviews of the men who worked with Gene Wilder compared to those of the late actor himself who had a different view of his most famous role.
Gene Wilder, born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, died in 2016 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 83. He made his screen debut in 1961 and after his third wife, Gilda Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989 at the age of 42 he devoted much of his time to cancer awareness and treatment. Radner was one of the seven original cast members of Saturday Night Live, and the two married in 1984.
Wilder’s last acting gig was in 2003 before he turned to authoring his own memoirs. He was “quietly political” and did not advertise his views, but he did donate to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign according to public records.
Biographer on Wilder
Brian Scott Mednick, who had previously written Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad is speaking up about the actor’s true views on his roles and the troubles he had with the director of Willy Wonka. His biography was published in 2015, before Wilder’s death and it has received praise from Dick Cavett and Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory
The 1971 film starring Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka was adapted from a Roald Dahl book published in 1964 entitled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Its soundtrack, including Sammy Davis Jr.’s The Candy Man was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Fiddler on the Roof.
The movie was conceived as part of a marketing campaign for Quaker Oats looking to introduce a new candy bar, later called the Wonka Bar. Its director, Mel Stuart, was influenced by his 10-year-old daughter’s love of the Dahl book.
While all cast members from Monty Python and even Peter Sellers were interested in playing Wonka, Gene Wilder was chosen after producers considered Fred Astaire among other names. It was Wilder that came up with the famous cane and limp gag, saying that he signed on to play the part only if the crowd first saw Wonka as a cripple who then somersaulted forward from a fall.
Mel Stuart’s On Set Abuse
According to Mednick, who spent 15 years researching the biography,
“I interviewed Mel Stuart, the director of ‘Willy Wonka,’ for the book, and he just raved about Gene and about how much the kids all loved him.”
But, Wilder had a different view of life on set of his most famous role:
“But Gene called [Mel Stuart] a maniac who yelled at everyone — not him — and thought that created an unpleasant environment on the set.”
This wasn’t a one-off of Wilder’s behalf. Mednick said that once during an interview Wilder said that he didn’t want his gravestone to read “Here Lies Willy Wonka,” but he like so many others was not given full choice on his legacy.
“When he died, all the news outlets highlighted his role as Willy Wonka above everything else. Gene wanted to be most remembered for ‘Young Frankenstein.’
Personally I prefer Blazing Saddles, but considering the language, I can see why media would prefer to talk about Willy Wonka instead of the amazing comedy, which was co-written with the legendary Mel Brooks.
Still alive and kicking at 81, Mel Brooks (born Melvin Kaminsky) has been a writer, comic, and creator throughout his career, knocking off titles including Get Smart, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, History of the World Part I, Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Many of his famous works included Gene Wilder, with whom he co-wrote Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, both of which were released in 1974.
According to Mednick, Brooks called Wilder’s original idea for Young Frankenstein to be “cute.” The film revolved around the American grandson of Dr. Frankenstein who wanted to show people that his grandpa wasn’t as nuts as everyone thought and so takes a trip to visit Transylvania to discover more about reanimation of dead bodies.
The two had first worked together on The Producers in 1967. The film is about two Broadway producers who realized they could make more money on a flop production through devious bookkeeping. Directed and written by the Jewish Mel Brooks, the film is about the production of a play entitled Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden, since it was considered to be the most wildly offensive subject for the stage.
More Praise for Gene
Mednick continues to talk about Wilder, saying that even funnymen who had never met him, including Jerry Lewis, wish that they had. The more people that he was granted interview access with, the more material he had saying that everyone loved him. It’s hard to sell a biography without some dirt, but:
“…his colleagues found working with him to be among the highlights of their careers.”
Further, despite the language in Blazing Saddles, it turns out that Wilder became disenchanted with acting due to technology:
“He always said if the right script came along he would do it, but he said everything he was being offered was filled with foul language and special effects.”
Thanks to Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder and crew, film might be the only good thing to have come out of the 70s.
Sources: Fox News, IMDb