Gene Wilder and Joan Rivers: 160 Years of Laughter - The Jewish Voice
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Gene Wilder and Joan Rivers: 160 Years of Laughter

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Another octogenarian is iconic comedienne Joan Rivers who will also celebrate an 80th birthday next week.
Another octogenarian is iconic comedienne Joan Rivers who will also celebrate an 80th birthday next week.
Two Jewish comedy giants will celebrate their 80th birthdays next week, just three days apart.  Gene Wilder, born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee on June 11, 1933, and Joan Rivers, born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn on June 8, 1933, have never met, but they did both work on the Letterman cartoons on the 1970s PBS children’s series “The Electric Company.”

I met Rivers last September in Las Vegas and she said, “I love Gene Wilder, he’s a nice man,” but regretted that they never met.  They taped their voiceovers for the Letterman cartoons separately.  Rivers also added that she was sorry she never met Zero Mostel, who also did voiceover work on the cartoon.

Wilder 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.

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. Wilder remarried in 1991 to Karen Webb, a speech therapist who coached him for his deaf role in “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.”

Joan Rivers first burst onto the comedy scene in the 1960s.  An appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” was pivotal.  Carson told Rivers she was going to be a big star and indeed she did.  In 1983, Rivers became Carson’s permanent guest host, a position she held until 1986, when she left Carson to host her own late night talk show on Fox, a move that ended their friendship when Carson felt Rivers betrayed her.

Rivers’ Fox show was short lived, and was just the beginning of a string of personal and professional obstacles.  In August 1987, her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide in a Philadelphia hotel room.  Rivers made a big comeback in the early 1990s with her own daytime talk show, for which she won an Emmy Award.

Unlike Gene Wilder, who has retired from acting and now writes books, Rivers is a workaholic, constantly traveling the country and the world doing her stand-up act, hocking her line of jewelry on QVC, writing books, and making talk show appearances.

Rivers is often mocked for having so much plastic surgery, but she is open about it and is always the first to joke about it.

Wilder and Rivers are very different types of talents – he is known for being shy and soft-spoken, she is famous for being brash and abrasive – but they are two of the most respected Jewish funny people of all-time.  We wish them a happy and healthy 80th birthday!

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