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Gene Wilder, of Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Silver Streak, Is Gone

Larry Wines: Mel Brooks, who directed Wilder in some of his most iconic movie roles, used Twitter today to mourn the actor's death: "Gene Wilder - One of the truly great talents of our time."

Gene Wilder is dead at age 83. Born as Jerome Silberman, he was, as the Washington Post characterized today, "an actor known for nimble comic portrayals of neurotics," though that unfairly diminishes his prowess in light of the charismatic charm he brought to many roles. The Post also noted, "Mostly, he devoted himself to painting and writing."

Gene Wilder

That writing included screenplays and five books, "My French Whore," "The Woman Who Wouldn't," "Something to Remember," "Of Magic and Mangers," and his memoir, "Kiss Me Like a Stranger." Mel Brooks and Wilder were nominated for an Academy Award for writing "Young Frankenstein."

Brooks, who directed Wilder in some of his most iconic movie roles, used Twitter today to mourn the actor's death: "Gene Wilder - One of the truly great talents of our time," Brooks wrote. "He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship."

Carl Reiner tweeted, "GeneWilder - Au revoir to a gifted actor whose films I suggest you re-visit if you want to be thoroughly entertained."

Mel Brooks, who directed Wilder in some of his most iconic movie roles, used Twitter today to mourn the actor's death: "Gene Wilder - One of the truly great talents of our time."

The social media universe has overflowed with tributes. Everyone from Steve Martin to Bob Saget, Sarah Silverman to Billy Crystal, Harry Connick Jr. to Chris Rock, Albert Brooks to Amy Schumer, Margaret Cho to Rob Lowe, Sir Roger Moore to George Takei, Larry Wilmore to Russell Crowe, Jake Tapper to Leonard Maltin, Snoop Dogg to Josh Groban, has expressed thanks and admiration for Wilder, or just a sense of loss.

Word did not circulate until Monday that Wilder had died Sunday at the age of 83. His family said his passing followed complications from Alzheimer's disease.

His role in "The Producers" would have been enough to constitute a signature for anyone else able to play it so memorably. But it would take the long-running Broadway revival before someone else would do that.

His filmography is more extensive than you might remember. Here it is, most recent to earliest work:

  • Alice in Wonderland, 1999
  • Another You, 1991
  • Funny About Love, 1990
  • See No Evil, Hear No Evil, 1989
  • Haunted Honeymoon, 1986
  • The Woman in Red, 1984
  • Hanky Panky, 1982
  • Stir Crazy, 1980
  • Sunday Lovers, 1980
  • The Frisco Kid, 1979
  • The World's Greatest Lover, 1977
  • Silver Streak, 1976
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, 1975
  • The Little Prince, 1974
  • Young Frankenstein, 1974
  • Rhinoceros, 1974
  • Blazing Saddles, 1974
  • Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask, 1972
  • Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, 1971
  • Start the Revolution Without Me, 1970
  • Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, 1970
  • The Producers, 1968
  • Bonnie and Clyde, 1967 (yep, he's in there with Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, and Estelle Parsons.)

There was always on-screen chemistry when Wilder was teamed with Richard Pryor. The two did four films together -- "Stir Crazy," "See No Evil Hear No Evil," "Silver Streak," and "Another You."

The Hollywood Reporter noted, "Perhaps the most iconic buddy comedy duos of all time, the pair appeared in multiple films, which became instant classics."

Actress Rain Pryor, daughter of Richard Pryor, told that publication her late father "always stood in awe of Gene Wilder." She recalled her father saying, "He thought them together was amazing. He always said, 'That man's a genius, and he's a good man, that's for sure.'"

Much of the duo's bantering onscreen dialog, which drove the audience's love for the characters, would be out of the question today as having too much potential to be offensive to racial sensibilities. That applies exponentially to nearly all the dialog in the Mel Brooks classic, "Blazing Saddles," in which Wilder shared one of the many prominent parts. Yet it was the individuality he imparted to so many of his roles that is responsible for an appreciable part of the pantheon of iconic movie lines.

One example? What he brought to the Leo Bloom character in "The Producers," early in his career, in 1968: "I'm hysterical! I'm having hysterics. I'm hysterical. I can't stop when I get like this. I can't stop. I'm hysterical. Oh my god. Ah-la-la-la."

"Silver Streak" brought another of Wilder's many trademark lines, this one delivered in partial falsetto with precise timing, expressing his character's "not-again" (and yes, neurotic) disbelief each of the many times he is thrown off the speeding passenger train. As he rises from the middle of the tracks or the weeds alongside them, or the water beneath a bridge, animated with a cross-body roundhouse punch of the air, with the perfect marriage of slapstick and predictable, anticipated shtick, he exclaims, "Son of a BITCH!"

That film, like "Blazing Saddles" that preceded it, was notable as a milestone in Hollywood's handling of race issues that had long been soft peddled, made inauthentic by contrived angst, or handled ham-handedly by the wave of blaxploitation crime films. These two films brought characters who needed each other, across racial lines, to achieve their own goals. And the characters of different races were seen facing threats and challenges and genuinely enjoying their associations. In the mid-1970s, just six and eight years after the murder of Martin Luther King, that was huge.

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"Blazing Saddles" has amassed plenty of lore, so we'll go with "Silver Streak" for a moment.

Anyone who loves trains will always remember Gene Wilder's editor of gardening books (and sex manuals), with Richard Pryor, Candace Bergen, and serious British actor Patrick McGoohan in "Silver Streak." Anyone who sees it remembers McGoohan's nefarious highbrow character applying the "n" word, and how Pryor and Wilder respond.

Some films achieve esoteric meanings their makers never know. "Railfans" is the most polite of many terms for people who like trains -- the other terms range into the territory of those who, uhh, have far too much affection for trains. At all levels of that aberrant subculture, including film, there is folklore. Released in 1976, "Silver Streak" developed an immediate and unique cult status. That includes its unique expression among the crew of the only nationwide Bicentennial project, the American Freedom Train. Upon arrival in each town, anyone who was off-duty checked the theatre listings, then schemed to secure enough host-provided "courtesy cars" and mounted a safari of all who could go to see the film, again and again, through all the states while it was screening. Eventually, at least a dozen crew members of varied racial and ethnic backgrounds -- who were mutually responsible for safeguarding George Washington's copy of the Constitution and Jamie Wyeth's original portrait of JFK, or who had the ancient knowledge required to keep the train's steam locomotives running -- could all quote the entire script of "Silver Streak."

In a sense, that's representative of something larger. Wilder is fondly regarded by diversely different fans for so many of his roles. "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" brought his perfectly-timed pregnant pause and single word, "! -- Nothing!" which turns up as a recorded interjection in sociopolitical punditry. Moreover, he imparted another "something" to his portrayal of the film's lead character -- it's been called "the condescending Wonka meme for the digital generation." Wilder in Wonka's gaudily colorful suit, exhibiting that wistful, almost Mona Lisa smile, is the basis for thousands of different quips and slogans, a ubiquitous internet picture as recognizable as the four-pane Windows square.

There are numerous lines from "Stir Crazy," his and Pryor's, from those in the chicken suits to several behind bars or making their wild and wacky escape.

There was Dr. Frederick Frankenstein -- and you just caught yourself, didn't you, to make sure you pronounced it the way Gene Wilder kept correcting the other characters to say it, in that signature line: "That's Fronck-en-steen." Some may remember his delivery, "Ladies and gentlemen, may I present for your intellectual and philosophical pleasure -- the CREATURE."

In real life, Gene Wilder lost his celebrated wife, Gilda Radner, to ovarian cancer in 1989. The two had married in 1984. His 2005 book, "Kiss Me Like a Stranger," was called by the L.A. Times, "witty" and "a frank, charming memoir." The reviewer found the book, "refreshingly free from the two major sins of show-biz autobiographies: self-aggrandizement and score-settling."

Indeed, Wilder's honesty prevails throughout its pages. The Times noted, "...when it comes to neediness, no one could top Wilder's third wife, comedian Gilda Radner, whose exuberant, exhausting personality dominates the book's three most interesting chapters. Radner was, he writes, 'the most generous and compassionate and original person I had ever known.'"

But that's not all. The two married in 1984. He also declared her to have been a "clinging baby pulling at my shirt sleeve every minute."

Times book reviewer Wendy Smith astutely found the essential points, writing, "It's tough to be honest about a popular star who died prematurely, but Wilder makes palpable both his love and his exasperation as Radner battled ovarian cancer and, like many terminally ill people, vented her pain and rage on those closest to her."

Smith continued, "When he explodes, 'just get off of yourself! I don't know how to help you any more than I'm doing,' he's venting not just his own frustration but that of anyone who's ever been in the unbearable situation of watching someone they love die without the well-scripted grace of a Hollywood movie."

The reviewer as diviner of human nature perfectly fit the book she was reviewing. Smith also explored, "Wilder's nuanced portrait of Richard Pryor similarly balances the pleasures of working with a comic genius against the aggravation of dealing with a mercurial, often hostile -- and while working on 'Stir Crazy,' drug-crazed -- individual."

Wilder and Radner were among the very few show biz couples who, despite it all, were totally in love, truly devoted to one another, through all the pain and impending death. Both could be zany comic geniuses along with the thoughtful side of creativity the public never saw. Then came the void, no more Roseanne Roseannadanna, or Emily Litella, or the other expressions of her bright genius. And only a year after her death, a veritable cure was found for the exact strain of cancer that had killed her.

Was Gene Wilder ever the same? He wrote "Kiss Me Like a Stranger" when he was, himself, a cancer survivor, at age 71, of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Smith concluded about the book, "If this all sounds awfully serious, be assured that Wilder tells plenty of entertaining stories about his work with everyone, including Jerome Robbins, Mike Nichols, Mel Brooks and Zero Mostel. [This] is as witty a memoir as you're likely to get... It's also a reflective and well-written meditation on the life of someone who has more on his mind than the next big part or belly laugh."

So much of his work was collaborative, whether writing "Young Frankenstein" with Mel Brooks or in his onscreen pairings, or in his marriage to a famous comedienne. Orlando Jones captured that when he wrote today on his social media page, "RIP Gene Wilder. You will be missed. Say hello to Gilda and Richard for us."

Gene Wilder left a considerable body of work on the screen as actor and screenwriter, and fortunately plenty of written words that come alive on stage or screen or for the solitary reader. That prominently includes his memoir among the five books he authored.

The rest? As always with the departed artist, it is for us to determine how his (or her) influence speaks to us, how meaningfully, how enduringly. There's that painting depicting Elvis with James Dean, Buddy Holly and Marilyn Monroe all sitting at a bar. So now it warrants redoing to position all of them as the audience in a club, with Gene Wilder, Gilda Radner, and Richard Pryor the co-headliners sharing the stage. Because surely, we, their public, wanted to see encores from each of them. And in this year filled with unending unpleasant surprises, we surely could have used all three of them to get through it.


Larry Wines