Gene Wilder may be best known as a comedian, but what truly made his comedic style unique is the way he managed to infuse his roles with dark and human undertones. At once cynical and exuberant, he was very serious about his craft. In tales from the making of what is perhaps his most famous role, Willy Wonka, his fellow cast mates described how he would use the element of surprise in order to achieve genuine reactions from the young stars. Wonka’s famous entrance? It was entirely crafted by Wilder himself, who suggested the cane and feigned fall into a somersault to the director.
One of Wilder’s first film roles, Leo Bloom in the Mel Brooks directed The Producers kicked started one of the most legendary collaborations in film history. The Hollywood newcomer was so overjoyed to be cast in the zany comedy, costarring Broadway star Zero Mostel that he reportedly broke down in tears upon receiving the call. Another of Wilder’s famous on screen buddies was Richard Pryor, with whom he made a series of 4 black comedies over the years, beginning with Silver Streak and ending in 1989 with See No Evil, Hear No Evil. Although he had many successful films, and his performances are highly praised, the only acting award he ever won was as a guest star on Will & Grace, which was his final film appearance.
But underneath his goofy persona, Wilder hid the scars of a life riddled with tragedy. From dealing with his mother’s fragile health, a horrific boarding school experience, and a late life struggle with Alzheimers, no part of his life was untouched by agonizing struggle. Even his fairy tale love story with Gilda Radner, famed comedienne from the 1980s cast of Saturday Night Live, was marred by her devastating illness. Despite the darkness, Wilder made it his goal to bring joy to others, and turned the sadness into comedy gold.