A lifetime of laughs, in spite of the tears
By Adam Tatelman, Arts Editor
After the untimely deaths of so many entertainment icons this past year, it seemed we were due a reprieve. But after mourning Prince, David Bowie, Christopher Lee, and Leonard Nimoy, to name but a few, we must now contend with the loss of Gene Wilder, accomplished author and lifelong Hollywood funnyman.
Born Jerome Silberman, Wilder grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with his parents, William and Jeanne. His predilection for comedy and acting grew out of his family life; when his mother became ill, 8-year-old Gene cared for her with laughter. Maybe his father’s profession as a manufacturer of novelty items had something to do with that.
Though her intentions were good, Jeanne’s decision to send Wilder to the Black-Foxe military academy was ill-advised. A lone Jew in a primarily American institute, Wilder was bullied and sexually assaulted by anti-Semitic students and staff. He returned home, seeking sanctuary in the local theatre community.
Wilder spent much of his adolescent life seeking out experts in the art of acting, beginning with his own sister’s acting coach. His studies took him from the University of Iowa to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, where he won the All-School Fencing Championship—the first freshman student to do so.
Even being drafted by the U.S. military wasn’t enough to keep him away from the theatre; assigned to the medical corps, he chose to be stationed in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, so that he lived close enough to New York to continue studying in the HB Studio.
Following his discharge and a series of roles in Shakespearean plays, Wilder chose his stage name in reference to Thornton Wilder, author of Our Town, and a character from Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel. Thanks to a chance meeting with director Mel Brooks during his 1963 performance of Mother Courage and Her Children, Wilder became perhaps the first actor ever to break into Hollywood after shedding a Jewish surname rather than adopting one.
Wilder went on to star in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, one of his most iconic roles. He achieved cult acclaim for his role as Willy Wonka in 1971’s semi-success Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, crafting an infamously eccentric performance—the inspiration for the “Condescending Willy Wonka” internet meme.
Finally achieving mainstream success with Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex, Wilder made a career out of zany fare like Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. He also teamed with comedian Richard Pryor on multiple occasions in fan favourites like Stir Crazy, although not all of their outings were successful. Following comparative duds like See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You, Wilder channeled his creativity into writing instead.
Contrary to popular belief, Wilder did not die of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He was in complete remission circa 2005. Rather, the cause was complications from Alzheimer’s, which he had struggled with for three years before his death. According to Jordan Walker-Perlman, his nephew, Wilder kept this information secret because he did not want his fans to be sad on his behalf.
That, perhaps, is the most incredible thing about Wilder’s life; most people would be rendered incurable cynics by the experiences Wilder had in his youth, but instead of seeing the darkness in everything, he did his best to light up everyone’s lives.
Sad as this news may be, do not weep for Gene Wilder. Remember his work, certainly, but shed no tears. He wouldn’t want you to lose your smile.