Monday, August 29, 2016

EDITORIAL: Gene Wilder - A Celebration

After a career spanning the better part of five decades, renowned comedian, Gene Wilder, has passed away at age 83. The star of some of the most beloved comedies of his time, we'd like to take this opportunity not to discuss his death, but to celebrate his life and career.

Born Jerome Silberman in 1933, Silberman first became interested in comedy at a young age due to him trying to make his mother laugh while she suffered from rhumetic fever. After returning from a tour of duty in the army, a 26-year-old Silberman adopted the stage name, Gene Wilder, and went into stage plays, landing roles in plays such as Mother Courage and Her Children and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

After landing a supporting role in a TV version of Death of a Salesman, Wilder entered the world of film with a supporting role in the acclaimed Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway picture, Bonnie & Clyde. From there, Wilder would go on to make his name in comedy. Only two films into his career, Wilder would meet the man who would make him a star, frequent collaborator, Mel Brooks. The pair would go on to make three films together: The Producers (which earned him his only Oscar nod for acting), Blazing Saddles, and one of the classics of comedy, Young Frankenstein.

Wilder would not allow himself to be constrained by Brooks' films, however, making his name in films such as See No Evil, Hear No Evil with Richard Pryor, and perhaps most memorably as the iconic Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a film that I rank among my personal favorites. His portrayal of Wonka became instantly iconic for him warm demeanor, mysterious one-liners, and unpredictable acting turns. His last major role was 1991's Another You, which reunited him with co-star, Richard Pryor. Another You would also go on to be Pryor's final major film role. Afterwards, Wilder would occasionally make an appearance on TV, but never again in film. Wilder had stated that he had grown dissatisfied with both the business of filmmaking and the caliber of scripts that would come his way. Talking to Time Out New York in 2013, he stated, "I get 52 movies a year sent to me, and maybe there are three good [ones]...It’s not that I wouldn’t act again. I’d say, 'Give me the script. If it’s something wonderful, I’ll do it.' But I don’t get anything like that."

In the intervening years, Wilder would mostly spend his time writing. He published three novels, a collection of short stories, and a memoir, all released between 2005 and 2013. Wilder was also a major advocate for cancer awareness after his late wife, SNL star Gilda Radner, passed away from ovarian cancer in 1989. Otherwise, he spent much of the rest of his life participating in charitable affairs, writing, and painting.

Wilder leaves behind a legacy in pop culture that cannot be overstated. He and Mel Brooks defined not only the American comedy, but the spoof, while his portrayal of Willy Wonka would imprint himself into the minds of generations. A perusal through his filmmography is essential for anyone who considers themselves a film buff, and especially anyone who loves comedy. Thank you for joining us in looking back at his career. Wilder's impact on film and on those who laughed with him and on those who cried with him will never be forgotten.

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