Critic's Notebook: Gene Wilder, the Mad Hatter Who Turned Off-Screen Neurosis Into Comedy Gold

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'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory'

Wilder's work with Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen and more made him one of the comedy titans of his generation.

Gene Wilder was the Mad Hatter of American screen comedy. He could make you laugh without even moving, his beatific half-smile always shading into a sinister smirk, his soft-spoken manner a flimsy mask for the whirling maelstrom of mischief beneath. With his radiant blue eyes, explosion of frizzy hair and otherworldly demeanor, Wilder was an unsettling clown and an unlikely leading man. But his offbeat energy helped create some of the greatest screen comedies, and biggest box-office hits, of his generation.

Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee in 1933 to a Russian-Jewish immigrant father and a sickly mother who sometimes mistreated him, the young Wilder was bullied for being Jewish by other kids. As a young man, he did two years of military service in the psychiatry department of a U.S. army hospital, later spending many years in analysis working on his deep-seated feelings of guilt, shame and sexual repression. For a Jewish-American comedian, of course, there is no finer apprenticeship; Wilder certainly always laced his finest comic performances with an undercurrent of anguish. Tellingly, he cited Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights as a key inspiration because “it was funny, then sad, then both at the same time.”

Initially making his mark on Broadway, Wilder first registered on Hollywood’s radar with his small but scene-stealing appearance in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), all nervy intensity and deadpan mirth. His big break came a year later when Mel Brooks cast him in The Producers (1968) as Leo Bloom, the seethingly neurotic accountant recruited by Zero Mostel’s crooked Broadway operator Max Bialystock for a money-making scam reliant on the surefire failure of a tasteless stage musical about Hitler. Where Mostel is a wrecking ball of crazed energy on screen, Wilder balances him with Zen-like minimalism, despite the mounting panic in his eyes. The film earned him his first Academy Award nomination and cemented his star status.

Wilder’s fruitful creative partnership with Brooks led to two further collaborations. In the bawdy western spoof Blazing Saddles (1972), he provides the zany plot’s calm emotional center as The Waco Kid, a legendary gunslinger with a surprisingly philosophical manner: “I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille,” he sighs ruefully. Two years later, in the affectionate monochrome vintage-horror pastiche Young Frankenstein (1974), Wilder stars as a hapless descendant of cinema’s most infamous mad scientist, wittily blending vaudevillian shtick with stylized Expressionist mannerisms. It was conceived by Wilder, and Young Frankenstein earned him a second Oscar nod, this time as co-writer with Brooks.

Wilder and Brooks brought out the best in each other, and each of their filmographies would be unthinkable without the other. But the eccentric star’s most memorable screen incarnation was in a non-Brooks project as the eponymous confectionery tycoon in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). Director Mel Stuart’s musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s deliciously nasty children’s book was a box-office flop, but it is now firmly established as a beloved cult classic.

Wilder’s multilayered performance as Wonka — by turns menacing and playful, stern and tender, creepy and compassionate — is a master class in darkly surreal humor that set a new bar for generations of Batman and James Bond villains. Even today, it continues to resonate through remakes, musical tributes and an ever-evolving social-media meme featuring Wilder grinning manically in full mad-hatter mode.

Wilder was a natural choice for Woody Allen’s episodic romp Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex... (1972), striking a note of Chaplin-esque empathy even  when playing a doctor who falls in lust with a sheep. He began directing and writing his own star vehicles soon afterward, beginning with The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975) and The World’s Greatest Lover (1977), two rather weak sub-Brooks affairs which nonetheless both made a handsome profit.

Meanwhile, the second great screen partnership of Wilder’s career was looming, playing straight man to combustible comedy legend Richard Pryor in four films over 15 years. In Arthur Hiller’s comedy thriller Silver Streak (1976), he plays the closest thing to a straight romantic lead in his career as a mild-mannered books editor caught up in a Hitchcockian murder plot on a cross-country train. The humor is painfully clunky and dated now – at one point Wilder disguises himself in blackface — but his agreeable odd-couple chemistry with Pryor helped make the film a box-office smash.

Even more lucrative was the pair’s next joint effort Stir Crazy (1980), a zany prison comedy directed by screen legend Sidney Poitier, which grossed more than $100 million domestically. These big numbers helped Wilder get backing for two further self-directed star vehicles, The Woman in Red (1984) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986), both co-starring his third wife, Gilda Radner. The first was a modest success that earned an Oscar for Stevie Wonder’s theme song, the second a critical and commercial dud. Neither features Wilder in peak form.

Wilder and Pryor teamed up again for See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991), which ended their silver streak of box office hits. Once again, these boorish knockabout farces are hardly great memorials to Wilder’s subtle comic skills. The latter would prove to be his final big-screen credit, though he continued to take occasional roles in TV, winning an Emmy for a guest appearance on Will and Grace in 2003.

After undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the turn of the millennium, Wilder mostly stayed away from acting in his autumn years. With his fourth wife, Karen Boyer, he preferred to busy himself with charity work, painting and writing comic novels. More recently, as he succumbed to the Alzheimer’s that would eventually hasten his death, he preferred to keep his illness hidden from the public. This was because, as his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman explains, “he simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”

What a wonderful way to remember the Mad Hatter of American comedy as he sails off into a world of pure imagination.

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