Leo Bloom, Willy Wonka, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, The Waco Kid. Gene Wilder assumed many iconic roles over the course of his enduring Hollywood career. And 12 months on from his death, here are 20 facts that prove he was just as magnificent behind the camera.
20. He was a champion fencer
Wilder never really got the chance to play the action hero on screen, but his early exploits suggest he was more than up to the challenge. Not only did the star train as a fencer for six months while studying at theater school, he was also once crowned the victor of the All-School Fencing Championship.
19. His stage name was inspired by a war hero relative
Concerned that someone born Jerry Silberman would never get to play Macbeth, the star decided to give himself a new name. He took the surname Wilder from author Thornton Wilder. The name Gene, meanwhile, was inspired by both a character from Thomas Wolfe’s debut novel, Look Homeward, Angel, and a distant relative who had served in WWII.
18. He was a last-minute replacement in Blazing Saddles
One of Wilder’s most celebrated performances came in Mel Brooks’ parody Blazing Saddles. But the actor wasn’t the first choice to play the Waco Kid. In fact, Wilder only came on board as a last minute replacement when both first choice Dan Dailey and second choice Gig Young both bailed on the movie.
17. He used Blazing Saddles to make another iconic film…
Wilder used any spare minute he had on the set of Blazing Saddles. In between takes, the actor gradually began to persuade director Mel Brooks to come on board for his next project. The result was Young Frankenstein, the 1974 horror comedy which Brooks later claimed was his best work.
16. But disagreed with Brooks over its musical adaptation
Sadly, the pair failed to agree on the musical adaptation of their last collaboration. Wilder wasn’t convinced that Young Frankenstein would work as an all-singing, all-dancing Broadway show. But Brooks went ahead regardless, creating a production that both disappointed critics and lasted just two years.
15. He made Hollywood history
Gene Wilder made several films with comedian Richard Pryor including Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You. But it was in 1976’s Silver Streak that the pair first showcased their natural chemistry. What’s more, the movie established Wilder and Pryor as the first interracial comedy twosome to achieve big-screen success.
14. He set up a cancer foundation
Wilder experienced a personal tragedy in 1989 when his third wife, Gilda Radner, passed away from cancer. The actor subsequently set up an ovarian cancer detection center in L.A. named after the ex-SNL star. And he also co-founded an awareness-raising support group which has grown to include several branches across America.
13. He revisited one of his most beloved films for a 9/11 benefit
Wilder once revisited perhaps his most beloved film during a benefit show for families affected by 9/11. The star read out passages from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Westport Country Playhouse event. And that same year he also donated a wealth of personal possessions to the University of Iowa Libraries.
12. He invented Willy Wonka’s entrance
Wilder only agreed to play Willy Wonka on the condition he could add his own spin on the character’s entrance. Specifically, the star insisted the eccentric factory owner should first be seen with a cane before doing a forward somersault to rapturous applause. And the movie’s bemused director eventually acquiesced.
11. He kept his Alzheimer’s a secret for a selfless reason
Get ready to shed a tear. Following Wilder’s death in 2016, nephew Jordan-Walker Pearlman explained the star had kept his Alzheimer’s a secret from the public for a very selfless reason. He didn’t want youngsters who recognized him as Willy Wonka to see him looking so frail and get upset.
10. He hated the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake
It’s fair to say Wilder wasn’t a huge fan of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake. In fact, at a New York book launch in June 2013 the original Willy Wonka described the 2005 movie as “an insult.” He also took aim at studio Warner Bros. and its director, Tim Burton, who he admitted he didn’t particularly care for.
9. He wasn’t a fan of modern films in general
Wilder last appeared on the big screen back in 1991 in Maurice Phillips’ crime comedy Another You. But the actor subsequently abandoned cinema due to the lack of decent scripts he received. In June 2013 he told TCM he had no interest in attaching himself to films which relied on 3D, swearing and brainless action.
8. He died listening to one of his favorite songs
Wilder died at his Stamford home in August 2016 listening to one of his favorite songs. A family statement revealed Ella Fitzgerald’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” began bellowing from a nearby music speaker as he took his last breath. Wilder had previously met the jazz legend at a London restaurant.
7. The Golden Rule was his life philosophy
Although Wilder appreciated his Jewish upbringing, he considered himself an atheist. However, that didn’t stop him from adhering to certain principles, namely the Golden Rule. The star firmly believed in the practice of treating people with the same respect he wished to be treated with.
6. He was high on caffeine in The Producers
The Producers scene in which Wilder’s Leo Bloom suffers a meltdown when his comfort blanket is confiscated is brilliantly manic. So how did Brooks manage to coax such a frantic performance from his star? Well, with copious amounts of caffeine. Yes, the director plied Wilder with 18 chocolate bars and a black coffee shortly before filming.
5. He cried after getting his The Producers role
Wilder also reacted dramatically in real life after learning that The Producers had been financed. Although he’d already been offered the Leo Bloom role, he didn’t believe a movie featuring a song entitled “Springtime for Hitler” would ever get funding. But upon discovering that Brooks had secured the money needed, the star actually broke down and wept.
4. He adopted his second wife’s daughter
Wilder didn’t have any biological children of his own. He did, however, have an adopted daughter from his second marriage. Katharine Schutz became Katharine Wilder in 1967, the same year that her mother Mary Joan wed the actor. But once her parents split in 1974, she and Gene sadly became estranged.
3. He became a father figure to Kelly LeBrock
Wilder also became a father figure to his The Woman in Red co-star Kelly Le Brock. In the wake of his death in 2016, the actress wrote an obituary for the Guardian in which she revealed Wilder had continually offered her support and encouragement. And she added she’ll always remember him for “the loveliness of his whole being.”
2. He was a staunch anti-war advocate
Wilder was a Democrat who engaged in liberal politics throughout his life. Indeed, he spoke out about the U.S. military’s actions in both the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. And he also donated thousands of dollars to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007.
1. He won his only major award in his last major role
Wilder received Golden Globe nominations for Willy Wonka and Silver Streak, and Oscar nods for The Producers and Young Frankenstein. But he only ever actually won one major award, and with his last major role, too. The star earned an Outstanding Guest Actor Emmy for his 2003 appearance in Will and Grace.