Obituary: Gene Wilder
Actor whose comic repertoire of neurotics and eccentrics delighted audiences young and old
Gene Wilder, the actor and director who died on Monday aged 83, became a favourite with children everywhere when he played the zany title role in the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971).
Based on Roald Dahl's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the musical fantasy gave Wilder the perfect platform as the eccentric confectionery maestro, whom he played with sparky cynicism, a smile constantly tugging at the corners of his mouth as he devised one devilish scheme after another.
Wilder imbued his performance with an element of grand guignol, giving the film a macabre as well as an exuberant feel as Willy Wonka conducted a group of children around his dream chocolate factory (the film was shot in Germany and the factory exterior was actually the Munich gasworks).
He recalled that when he accepted the role, he had told the film's director, Mel Stuart, that he did so on one condition: "When I make my first entrance, I'd like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I'm walking on and stands straight up, by itself... but I keep on walking, until I realise that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause."
When asked why, Wilder responded: "Because from that time on, no one will know if I'm lying or telling the truth." The scene was duly included in the film.
Although Willy Wonka defined Wilder as the quizzical, frizzy-haired comedy actor with windmilling arms and an air of demented babbling panic, his career both on- and off-camera was a patchy affair, with as many misses as hits. Consequently, his output was judged disappointingly uneven.
A palpable hit, however, was Blazing Saddles (1974), the spoof Western written and produced by his friend Mel Brooks, in which Wilder featured as the alcoholic former gunslinger, the Waco Kid, a part he played by default after two older actors originally lined up for it pulled out.
His next film, Young Frankenstein (1974), also directed by Brooks, was another parody, this time of early horror films. As well as coming up with the idea, Wilder collaborated with Brooks on the screenplay and starred as the brain surgeon descended from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein of literary renown.
His partnership with the black actor Richard Pryor began in 1976 with Silver Streak, a parody of train mysteries like North by North-West, noted for its sensational finale. It was chosen for the Royal Film Performance in London, attended by the British Queen Mother in 1977, and was followed by Stir Crazy (1980), a raucous comedy that did well at the box office. But the pairing faltered with the abysmal romp See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and disintegrated after Another You (1991), a third-rate farce that sank with all hands.
On the stage, he made his British debut in Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor (Queen's Theatre, London, 1996), in which his permanently glazed, spaced-out weariness proved, in the words of Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph, "a dream of a role".
Low-key and reflective in private, Wilder admitted to writing "emotionally autobiographical" screenplays, but his serious off-screen manner contrasted with the manic exertions popular with his fans. "My quiet exterior used to be a mask for hysteria," he was once quoted as saying. "After seven years of analysis, it just became a habit."
Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman on June 11 1933 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where his Jewish father, who had migrated from Russia at the age of 11, made miniature whiskey bottles and imported novelties and souvenirs.
His mother, of Polish descent, suffered a heart attack when Jerry was eight, leaving her a semi-invalid; he devised comedy skits to cheer her up.
After Washington High School, Milwaukee, he enrolled at the University of Iowa in 1951, acting in student plays and appearing in summer repertory during the holidays. As an actor, he had originally inclined to comedy parts but, inspired by Lee J Cobb in the original Broadway production of Death of a Salesman (1949-50), he refocused on more serious roles.
In 1955, after graduating with an arts degree, he moved to England and joined the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, where he learnt judo, fencing, gymnastics and voice control, but he left before studying acting technique. On his return to America, he served in the US army, working in a military hospital neuropsychiatric ward by day and attending drama school in New York at the weekends.
On his discharge, and having taken the professional name Gene Wilder (Gene after a character in Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, and Wilder after Thornton Wilder), he joined the Actors' Studio and studied method acting with Lee Strasberg.
He financed himself by working as a chauffeur and toy salesman as well as by giving instruction in fencing, a skill that also led to his being hired as fencing choreographer in productions of Twelfth Night and Macbeth in 1961. In the same year he made his off-Broadway debut as Frankie Bryant in Arnold Wesker's Roots.
His first Broadway appearance that November was as the comic hotel valet in Graham Greene's The Complaisant Lover, a role that earned him an award as the most promising newcomer and turned him again towards comedy parts.
In 1963, appearing in another Broadway production, of Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, he met Mel Brooks, who each evening called backstage to collect the play's star, Anne Bancroft, whom he later married.
Brooks promised Wilder a part in a film he intended to write entitled Springtime for Hitler.
This turned out to be the role of the frenetic accountant Leo Bloom in The Producers (1969), for which Wilder was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor. In the meantime, he had made his film debut in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) as the terrified undertaker Eugene Grizzard, kidnapped by the outlaw couple and whisked away on a joyride, a fleeting cameo noted for its timing and restraint.
In The Producers, Wilder's hilarious performance as the accountant was the one that established his screen persona, that of a low-key, well-balanced person transformed by the smallest crisis into a hysterical bundle of nerves.
In Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972), one of several films in which he played variations on this theme, he was a doctor who falls in love with a sheep, taking it to a hotel room and ordering wine, caviar and some green grass.
He moved into directing and screenwriting with another spoof, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975), and The World's Greatest Lover (1977), both stylish pictures laden with quirky humour that saluted the style of his mentor Mel Brooks. Wilder's third wife, the television comedienne Gilda Radner, featured in two of his films from the mid-Eighties, The Woman in Red (1984) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986), both of which were critically panned.
His last major role was as the Mock Turtle in a television film version of Alice in Wonderland in 1999.
Wilder produced a memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art (2005); a collection of stories, What Is This Thing Called Love? (2010); and three novels: My French Whore (2007), The Woman Who Wouldn't (2008) and Something to Remember You By (2013).
Gene Wilder married, in 1960, the actress and playwright Mary Mercier, with whom he had appeared in a New York production of Roots. When the marriage ended in divorce, he married secondly, in 1967, Mary Joan Schutz, adopting her daughter from an earlier marriage.
Wilder's third wife, Gilda Radner, whom he married in 1984, died from ovarian cancer in 1989 aged 42, after which he became actively involved in promoting cancer awareness.
His fourth wife, Karen Webb (nee Boyer), survives him.