“From that fateful day when stinking bits of slime first crawled from the sea and shouted to the cold stars, ‘I am man,’ our greatest dread has always been the knowledge of our mortality.” – Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein (1974)
We lost a good one on August 29, 2016, when Gene Wilder passed away from Alzheimer’s complications at the age of 83. The actor appeared in many iconic comedies throughout the course of his storied career before transitioning to painting, writing, and an Emmy-winning guest run on the comedy series Will & Grace.
He kept quiet about his disease, as his nephew, Jordan Walker-Perlman, explained in a statement:
“The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him ‘there’s Willy Wonka,’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
This weekend, bring some smiles into the world and pay tribute to the late, great Wilder with a movie marathon. Pick up some Willy Wonka, Wonka’s Bubbilicious, Golden Ticket, or one of your favorite giggle-inducing strains, and enjoy the sardonic, manic, yet oftentimes gentle talents of the man with a twinkle in his eye who made people laugh across multiple generations.
The Producers (1967)
The original film that became a musical that became another film, The Producers is the first of many successful collaborations between comedy legend Mel Brooks and Wilder. He plays Leo Bloom, an accountant who’s persuaded to cook the books of an intentionally terrible musical in a scheme to get rich quick. Unfortunately for him and his cohort, Max Bialystock, “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp” is misinterpreted as a satire and becomes a huge success, ruining the duo’s dreams of making money from the flop.
Wilder’s performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and the musical version of The Producers went on to become the winningest musical production in Tony Award history.
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Sorry, Johnny, but Gene Wilder is (and will always be) the one true Wonka. The trippy, odd, and weirdly sweet adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic may be one of the only children’s movies to simultaneously provide kids with laughter, joy, and nightmares. Wilder is the titular chocolatier who holds a contest to determine which Golden Ticket-wielding winner is best suited to inherit his factory. Absurd child mishaps and a disturbingly trippy ferry ride ensue, and while we all try to forget how crappy and selfish Charlie Bucket’s family actually was, we’ll always remember Wilder’s iconic performance peppered with sarcastic one-liners and understated charm.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Wilder teams up with Mel Brooks again in this hilarious western satire about a black sheriff in a racist, all-white town. He plays Jim, the “Waco Kid,” who assists Sheriff Bart in bringing the town together to defend itself against a group of thugs and criminals hired to drive folks away. The film earned three Academy Award nominations, demonstrating its ability to bring the laughs while being a standout work of art worthy of accolades.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
In yet another collaboration with Mel Brooks, Wilder spoofs the classic monster horror genre (even shooting entirely in black-and-white), playing a descendant of Dr. Victor Frankenstein. There’s a reason why this movie has graced numerous lists ranking the top comedies of all time: “Fronkensteen,” as Wilder’s character insists his name is pronounced, inherits an estate in Transylvania, meets Igor (pronounced “Eye-gor,” of course), and constructs a creature that later performs a hilariously garbled rendition of “Puttin’ On the Ritz.” The whole thing is delightfully absurd, which seems to perfectly encapsulate Wilder’s distinct personality.
Silver Streak (1976)
Wilder’s first of three collaborations with the inimitable Richard Pryor (they would later team up in Stir Crazy and See No Evil, Hear No Evil) paired his hilarious bouts of mania with Pryor’s cool, smooth-talking charm. In this comedic murder mystery, the film follows Wilder as George Caldwell, a man travelling cross-country via train to attend a wedding. After stumbling across a dead body, hijinks ensue and he meets up with Pryor’s character, a thief being transported to jail. The two work together to try and catch the murderers, with Pryor convincing Wilder to disguise himself as a black man to get back on the train (with amusingly awkward results).