To paraphrase one of his lines from Young Frankenstein, it is safe to say one thing about Gene Wilder: Alive! He’s alive! He’s alive!!!
The 79-year-old funnyman has been out of the spotlight recently. When he did not attend an event in his hometown of Stamford, Conn., earlier this year that featured a tribute to him, there were rumblings that he was not in good health. Having beaten non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma more than a decade ago, there was fear perhaps he had a recurrence. But according to Wilder’s nephew, filmmaker Jordan Walker-Pearlman, aside from the occasional cold, Wilder is just fine.
Last month he participated in his annual film series called Wilder’s Picks at the Avon Theatre Film Center in Stamford, Connecticut, a movie house that first opened in 1939 and was restored in 2004 as an art house dedicated to showing classics, documentaries, and foreign films. Wilder serves on the Avon’s board of directors, and since 2007 has been in attendance for the annual three-night film series where he screens two old film classics and one of his own films on the final night. The final showing of his own film begins with a wine and cheese reception. Wilder chose to screen Stir Crazy last month, the 1980 blockbuster hit where he and Richard Pryor play two innocent schnooks who go to prison after being wrongfully accused of bank robbery.
“The Avon is a wonderful place to see movies,” Wilder told The Hour’s Leslie Lake. “I pick three movies a year, one of mine and two others. My wife Karen interviews me and it’s great. She knows me better than anyone else.”
Wilder was born Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933 in Milwaukee, Wis., to Jewish parents. His father emigrated from Russia as a young boy; his mother was born in Chicago. After his mother suffered a heart attack when he was eight years old, Wilder was told by his mother’s doctor to make her laugh if he could. So, to cheer his mother up, he would improvise skits, do accents, and act out Danny Kaye routines.
He was bitten by the acting bug after seeing his sister in a dramatic recital of Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. He was so envious of the attention she received from the audience that after the recital he approached her acting teacher, Herman Gottlieb, and told him that he wanted to study with him. Gottlieb told the eleven-year-old boy that if he came back in two years and was still interested he’d take him on. The day after his thirteenth birthday, he went to Gottlieb and studied with him for five years.
For a brief and terribly unhappy time, Wilder’s parents sent him off to the now torn down Black-Foxe Military Institute in Hollywood, Calif., where, as the only Jewish boy in the school, he was constantly the victim of abuse by his fellow students, most of whom were products of broken homes.
He graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in theater, and in 1961 was accepted into the Actors Studio. A chance meeting with Mel Brooks in 1963 changed his life and career. Brooks was writing a screenplay, then called Springtime for Hitler, and told Wilder there was a role he would be perfect for. But it would take Brooks several years to raise the money to make the film, so Wilder occupied much of the 1960s working on TV and Broadway. He made his film debut in 1967 with a small but memorable part as an undertaker the Barrow gang takes for a ride in Bonnie and Clyde. The following year, Brooks made good on his promise and cast Wilder in The Producers, a role which earned him an Oscar nomination and helped make him a star. Wilder and Brooks would go on to collaborate on Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, widely regarded as two of the funniest films ever made.
The 1970s and ’80s would see Wilder become one of the screen’s biggest comedic talents thanks to such films as Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Silver Streak, and his most Jewish role in The Frisco Kid, in which he played a Polish rabbi who travels to San Francisco in the 1850s. His co-star in that film was Harrison Ford. Gene got along well with Ford and the two would often have dinner at a local pub after the day’s shooting ended. While Wilder is obviously Jewish and played a very Jewish role in the film, Ford himself is half-Jewish on his mother’s side (which, according to Jewish law, makes him Jewish). “At one point,” Wilder remembered, “during some conversation, Harrison said, ‘Why do you say that? I’m half-Jewish.’ He certainly didn’t seem Jewish.”
Wilder had an undeniable chemistry with Richard Pryor, with whom he would star in four films. He would also go on to write and direct a number of his own films, including The World’s Greatest Lover and The Woman in Red. In 1981 he met Gilda Radner on the set of Hanky Panky. The two married in 1984 but the union, which was not quite the fairy-tale marriage it appeared, was short-lived as Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986, a disease which would claim her life in1989. Following Radner’s death, Wilder founded Gilda’s Club, a cancer support community for people with cancer and their friends and family.
Wilder found true happiness with Karen Webb, the speech therapist who coached him for his deaf role in See No Evil, Hear No Evil. Webb became his fourth wife in 1991. Wilder faced his own cancer ordeal when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1999, which he successfully fought.
In 2005 Wilder wrote a memoir entitled Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art. Since then, he has written two novellas and a short story collection. He has not appeared in a feature film since 1991’s Another You, the fourth and least successful of his pairings with Richard Pryor.
Although as an adult Wilder has always been proud of his Jewish heritage, growing up he was often embarrassed by it. “For example, if some Jew was too loud when I was nine years old…” he said, “I might say, ‘How can I get out of here… Or if my Grandmas would kiss me in a certain place and all the kids were watching.”
Of Gene’s four wives, only Radner was Jewish. “I married a Catholic, then I married another Catholic, and then I married Gilda – she’s as Jewish as they come,” he told Abigail Pogrebin in 2005 when she interviewed him for her book Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. “She was pretty young, but she talked like an old Jew. And her jokes and her kvetching – it would have been easier to take, but it was so Jewish when it came out. I used to say, ‘Do I have to listen to you kvetch in Jewish?’”
Once one of the highest paid actors in film, Wilder now leads a very quiet New England life, far from the glow of Hollywood that made him rich and famous over forty years ago. On his decision to no longer act unless something really special comes along, Wilder says, “I’d rather write than act. Sit here in my comfortable study. Write. Come out for a cup of tea. Give my wife a kiss. Have a little yogurt. Come in and write some more.”
As a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Wilder is sent over 50 new films on DVD a year to vote on in the major categories for the Oscars. “Out of those 50 or so, I have a hard time coming up with five good ones,” Wilder said.
As protective of his privacy as ever, Gene Wilder doesn’t feel the need to attend movie premieres or awards shows. After five decades of laughter and twenty-two feature films (far too few for his most die-hard fans), Wilder doesn’t long for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame or an Oscar or his name in the papers. When he says he is content just spending time with his wife painting watercolors, he’s not trying to be humble – he means it. “I am in love,” he told interviewer Robert Chalmers in 2005. “With my wife. This is the only…great love that I have experienced ever, in my life. And this is the other thing that I have learnt from cancer: that the greatest joy on earth is to love and to be loved. And I have that. I am surrounded by birds, and flowers, and trees… And deer. I live where I want to live. With the person I want to be with. And for me…that is more than enough.”
Brian Scott Mednick is the author of the unauthorized biography Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad (BearManor Media).