As Gene Wilder, in his eponymous role as Willy Wonka in 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” leads a group of awestruck youngsters and parents into his chocolate factory for the first time, he sings, “There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination.”
Even in death, Wilder never settled for the mundane. Surrounded by his family and with his favorite song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” playing in the background, Wilder died Monday at 83 from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease.
Though Wilder’s most celebrated roles spanned the ’60s and ’70s — whether it was Dr. Frankenstein in “Young Frankenstein,” Leo Bloom in “The Producers” or Wonka — laughs were almost always guaranteed when he was a part of anyone’s film.
Born into a Milwaukee-area Jewish family as Jerome Silberman, Wilder grew up acting in local theater productions, studying Shakespeare at England’s Bristol Old Vic Theater School and serving as an Army psychiatric aide when he moved to New York.
After his discharge in 1958, Wilder joined the Actors Studio, a prestigious group devoted to supporting and developing theater artists. There, he trained in method acting with Lee Strasberg, whose mastery of the style later inspired an entire method acting school in his name.
Partly due to his training in method acting, Wilder had a flexible approach to comedy, both physical and verbal, which earned him recognition as a performer who embraced extravagance instead of avoiding it.
In a well-known scene from “Blazing Saddles,” Cleavon Little, as Sheriff Bart, asks Wilder’s character his name. He answers, “Jim, but most people call me…Jim,” hesitating and staring — without blinking — at Little before delivering the second “Jim.” Director Edgar Wright likely had this scene in mind when he tweeted, following Wilder’s death, that he was “the master of the comedic pause,” while also being “funny doing something & funny doing nothing.”
Wilder’s most recognizable character was the eccentric Wonka in Mel Stuart’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Unpredictable, irreverent and whimsical, Wilder’s performance made an impression on an entire generation of children and adults, and continues to introduce younger audiences to the actor today.
Wilder’s first lead part as accountant Leo Bloom in Brooks’ 1967 directorial debut “The Producers” introduced film-going audiences to Wilder’s energetic knack for hilarity, establishing him as one of the silver screen’s most acclaimed comics.
Not content to simply just act, Wilder took an active part in the creative process, famously improvising his “Willy Wonka” entrance and co-writing the “Young Frankenstein” script with director Mel Brooks, earning the duo an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1975.
Wilder’s friendship with Brooks proved to be one of the greatest partnerships in Hollywood.
Many of the roles and films Wilder associated with took on risqué subjects that would normally be considered too taboo for comedy at the time. “Blazing Saddles,” another Brooks work, was an unrelenting satire on racism in the American Wild West, with many modern audiences citing it as something that could have never been made today due to its racial humor and epithets.
Even “The Producers” openly mocked Hitler and the Nazis through song. Despite being serious topics, Wilder understood that humor could expose ridiculous ideas for what they were and was never afraid of the material he was given.
Apart from his solo roles, Wilder became known for multiple collaborations with Richard Pryor, starting with “Silver Streak” in 1976.
After his third wife, Gilda Radner, died in 1989, he only took a handful of roles, the most memorable being an Emmy Award-winning turn on the 2002-2003 season of “Will and Grace.” Despite having little presence in late-20th and early-21st-century Hollywood, the status of Wilder’s best works as cinematic classics never diminished and only continued to grow with age.
Gene Wilder’s passing sparked mass tributes on social media similar to that of recently-deceased celebrities like David Bowie or Christopher Lee, who themselves were active until their deaths. For this to happen to an actor whose peak years were over two decades ago — especially one without a single modern film to his name — is truly a testament to the legacy Wilder created.
There is a scene in “Willy Wonka” where Wonka proclaims: “Time is precious. Never waste it.” Wilder certainly never wasted time and until his last days, he knew no other life than that of pure imagination.