by Jason Koenigsberg
From Leo Bloom, to Willy Wonka, to Dr. Frankenstein and everything in between, Gene Wilder starred in some of the funniest movies of all time. He passed away today at the age of 83. Wilder enhanced every movie he was in and it is no coincidence that Mel Brooks’ three best films The Producers (1968), Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974) all starred Wilder. Together they created three timeless comedies that have rightfully become regarded as some of the funniest films ever made.
Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin of Russian-Jewish descent, he turned to acting at a young age and had a successful stage career. His first major film role was a small part in Arthur Penn’s groundbreaking classic Bonnie and Clyde (1967) where he shared a scene opposite stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
The following year was Gene Wilder’s big breakout in Mel Brooks’ directorial debut The Producers, which would earn Wilder an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Both Brooks and Wilder would work together creating one of the best director/actor tandems in comedy cinema history.
He would also earn accolades for starring opposite the great Richard Pryor in four films starting with Silver Streak (1976), then Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and ending with Another You (1991). They were friends in real life and Wilder allegedly had a soothing effect on Pryor as he was there to help him during his tough times and difficult battle with drug addiction.
Wilder was married four times but his most notable to comedienne Gilda Radner who’s untimely death in 1989 from ovarian cancer really left Wilder heartbroken and he remarried Karen Boyer, who would remain his wife until his death. From this point Gene Wilder started to live a much more private life. He had a television show called Something Wilder in the 1990’s and in 2003 won an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for the hit show Will and Grace. This would be Wilder’s last big acting role as he really stepped away from the spotlight and enjoyed retirement living in Connecticut.
Gene Wilder was a key component to creating some of the most iconic roles in comedies during the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s and 80’s. He will be greatly missed but we should all be so grateful that he lent his brilliant gifts to such timeless classics that we can celebrate and cherish forever.
Here are the 5 Best Films of Gene Wilder:
5. See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) directed by Arthur Hiller
Not only was this Gene Wilder’s funniest film alongside the equally legendary Richard Pryor, but Wilder actually gives a great performance portraying a deaf man who reads lips. The plot involving his deaf character and Pryor’s blind man wrongfully accused of a murder is rather silly and preposterous the way they escape police custody and end up foiling a diabolical criminal’s masterplan, but it sure made for one heck of a fun ride. I especially loved the scenes that involve Wilder dealing with the frustrations of a deaf man who can speak trying to explain his situation to people who did not seem to understand. Wilder actually did a lot of research for this role and worked with hearing impaired people that did not use sign language but read lips and worked primarily among the hearing population. Also worth noting, the films director Arthur Hiller who made Silver Streak (1976) which also starred Wilder and Pryor, and the mega hit Love Story (1970) passed away two weeks ago at the age of 92.
4. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) directed by Mel Stuart
Probably the most iconic role of Gene Wilder’s career, this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved book has become family classic and staple of childhoods for multiple generations. Not even the immensely talented Johnny Depp and Tim Burton could recapture the magic of the original film with Gene Wilder as the titular character. It is also a great performance filled with whimsy and a darkness to it that makes Gene Wilder’s Wonka kind of evil and mysterious at times, while other times he is just like a big kid, the embodiment of childlike innocence with a little devil up his sleeve. Unlike other films on this list, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a classic almost solely because of Gene Wilder’s enigmatic performance.
3. Blazing Saddles (1974) directed by Mel Brooks
This is easily my favorite film with Gene Wilder and probably the funniest of his career. Why is it ranked number three you ask? Because as great as Gene Wilder is in this Mel Brooks comedy classic, he is the more subtle actor and given less to do while Cleavon Little, Madeline Kahn and Harvey Korman all have much meatier, scene stealing roles that they nail perfectly. I am saddened as I type this and realized that Wilder along with all the names of his costars I listed have passed away. There will never be another comedy like Blazing Saddles. Its humor was subversive and simultaneously intellectual and insipid. This is genius in stupidity. Gene Wilder does a great job as his best scenes are the dialogues he has with Cleavon Little, sort of a sign of things to come with his on-screen interactions when paired with Richard Pryor, who co-wrote the screenplay for Blazing Saddles. In this day and age with our overly politically correct society no major Hollywood film could ever approach race relations the way Mel Brooks did with Blazing Saddles, without a doubt one of the funniest films of all time.
2. Young Frankenstein (1974) directed by Mel Brooks
1974 was a great year for both Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks with the back to back huge hits of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, or Frahnk-en-steeen, if you pronounce it the way they say it in this movie. One of the funniest film parodies of all time photographed in beautiful black and white making it feel like a James Whale picture, but make no mistake about it, this has Mel Brooks’ signature humor all over it. Both Brooks and Wilder wrote the script and received a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar Nomination losing to Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather: Part II, no qualms there. This features Wilder’s most outrageous and over the top performance starting out as a mild-mannered scientist ashamed of his name and what it means to science, only to eventually follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. Gene Wilder is an absolute joy to watch and delivers his best performance in a leading role.
1. The Producers (1968) directed by Mel Brooks
It is no coincidence that the top three Gene Wilder movies are all directed by Mel Brooks. Whenever the great Mel Brooks passes away, which I hope is not anytime soon, he will receive a similar tribute here at Pan and Slam and will have the same three films listed as the best of his career possibly in a different order. These three movies are timeless classics that are just as hilarious the first time you watch them as they are the one hundredth time. The Producers won Brooks an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, thirty plus years later he would win a Tony as well for the Broadway Musical, but it also earned Gene Wilder a Best Supporting Actor Nomination. As great as he was sharing scenes with Cleavon Little and Richard Pryor, none of them are as uproariously funny as the back and forth dynamic between Wilder and Zero Mostel as Bialystock and Bloom, the worst producers on Broadway. The fact that The Producers inspired musicals, a remake and one of the funniest Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes ever all made in the twenty-first century prove how timeless this movie is. It features Wilder as a mild mannered accountant who can go hysterical and created one of the funniest man-child nebbish performances of all time.
If you have not seen any of the 5 best Gene Wilder movies, I implore you to seek them out however you can and you will laugh for hours and hours. Each one is a genuinely hilarious film that will provide you with smiles long after they are over. As stated before Gene Wilder may be gone, but we are fortunate that he left behind a legacy of some of the funniest movies ever made.