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The Early Years

The following biographical information is a slightly modified (to fit the past tense) excerpt from the 1978 Current Biography, pages 454 through 457.

In his pursuit of the risible, Gene Wilder takes a path well trodden by Mel Brooks and others, structuring his films to parody another film or a film genre, with an obsession for screen trivia. But in employing his ingenious comic imagination in the many functions of auteur – actor, scriptwriter, director, and producer – he is developing an identifiable style of his own – one that is quieter and more subtle than that of his mentors, slapstick touched with poignancy and romance mingled with the bizarre.

When Wilder went to Hollywood in the late 1960's to perform first in Bonnie and Clyde and then in The Producers, he was an actor with a solid background in the theatre who applied to comedy the same professional skills that he did to serious drama. His Other technical proficiencies in cinematic art came to the aid of his career later in Young Frankenstein, for which he helped to write a script to suit his goals as n actor, and in The World's Greatest Lover, of which he was star, writer, director, and producer.

Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on June 11, 1933, Gene Wilder is the son of William J. and Jeanne (Baer) Silberman. His father, who had emigrated from Russia at the age of eleven, was an importer and manufacturer of novelties and souvenirs. his Chicago-born mother was of Polish descent. A heart attack that she suffered when her son was six years old left her a semi-invalid. To cheer her up, the child improvised comedy skits, so that from an early age he was aware of the coexistence of laughter and pain. His older sister, who was taking dramatic lessons, also provided an impetus toward his becoming an actor when he observed with envy the attention and approval that she drew from an audience during a student performance. In press interviews he has given various explanations of why at about the age of twenty-six, he chose Gene Wilder for his professional name. He told Leo Seligsohn of Newsday (December 17, 1977), "I had always liked Gene because of Thomas Wolfe's character Eugene Gant in Look Homeward, Angel, and Of Time and the River. And I was always a great admirer of Thornton Wilder."

After attending the Black-Foxe Military Institute in Los Angeles for a rather brief and dissatisfying period, Wilder completed his secondary school education in Milwaukee at the Washington High School, from which he graduated in 1951. At about the age of twelve, he had begun studying acting with Herman Gottlieb in Milwaukee and in 1948 had made his debut at the Milwaukee Playhouse as Balthazar in Romeo and Juliet. His early preference was for comedy, but seeing Lee J. Cobb in the original Broadway production of Death of a Salesman. (1949-50) turned him toward what he then considered to be a more serious and important form of acting. He attended the University of Iowa, took part in student dramatic productions, played in summer stock during vacations, and obtained his B.A. degree in 1955.

Apparently with the intention of acquiring a classical training in the theater, in 1955 Wilder enrolled in the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England, where he studied judo, fencing, gymnastics, and voice, but left when he reached the course in techniques of acting. On his return to the United States, he was inducted into the Army and assigned to the Valley Forge Hospital in Pennsylvania. Seeing some connection with acting, he opted for duty in the neuropsychiatric ward. On weekends he studied drama at the Herbert Berghof Studio in New York City. In 1961, when he became a member of the Actors Studio in New York City. In 1961, when he became a member of the Actors Studio, he began studying with Lee Strasberg. One of the jobs that Wilder took to finance his acting apprenticeship was that of fencing instructor, having acquired at Bristol a skill that also enabled him to work as fencing choreographer for Twelfth Night and Macbeth at the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Drama Festival in 1959.

On March 6, 1961 at the Off-Broadway Mayfair Theatre, Gene Wilder made his New York debut in the role of Frankie Bryant, the young bumpkin in Arnold Wesker's Roots. In his first Broadway appearance, in November of that year, he played the bewildered hotel valet in Graham Greene's comedy The Complaisant Lover, giving a performance for which he won the Clarence Derwent Award, presented to a promising newcomer in a supporting role. It was reportedly the gratifying audience response to his inspired portrayal that persuaded him to consider following the comic route. After touring in The Complaisant Lover, he returned to Broadway in the spring of 1963 as the Chaplain in Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children. That production proved to be significant in his career because of his meeting with Mel Brooks, ho every evening used to call backstage for its star, Anne Bancroft, whom he later married. Brooks promised Wilder a part in a movie he intended to write.

Before that promise was kept, however, Wilder continued on Broadway in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1963), Dynamite Tonight (1964), and The White House (1964) and also toured in one or two plays. He was a standby for Alan Arkin in the role of Harry Berlin in Murray Schisgal's Luv, which had its premiere in November 1964. During the long run of that smash hit the role was taken over by Gabriel Dell and then by Wilder, who was therefore a star of the three-character comedy when it closed in January 1967.

Only a few of the critics, concentrating on Warren Beatty's performance in Bonnie and Clyde (Warner Brothers), mentioned the brief appearance of Gene Wilder as Eugene Grizzard, the neurotic undertaker kidnapped by the Barrow gang. But in some later appraisals of the actor he was remembered as a peerless hysteric in his screen debut of 1967. The following year in The Producers (Embassy), the first film that Mel Brooks wrote and directed, he created for Wilder the role of Leo Bloom, a neurotic accountant who carries around a handkerchief-size security blanket. His acting won him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Several reviewers thought the movie hilarious, even though they agreed with the verdicts of Renata Adler of the New York Times (March 19,1968): "a hybrid --half miracle and half mess."

Similar reservations, some of them judging the script unworthy of the acting, were often echoed in reviews of Wilder's later pictures. The critic for Variety (February 4, 1970), for instance, found that Wilder and Donald Sutherland seemed "superior to their material" in Start the Revolution Without Me (Warner Brothers, 1970), playing dual roles in a period farce about two sets of twins switched at birth. In the lead of Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (UM Film, 1970) he portrayed a Dublin peddler of manure who arouses the romantic interest of an American coed at Trinity College. To Judith Crist of New York magazine (July 20, 1970), the film was "a pleasant piece of fluffery that does little but showcase further the charming talents of Gene Wilder." Penelope Gillitt wrote in the New Yorker (July 25, 1970), "Gene Wilder, one of the best American actors, plays the dreadful Quackser as best as man could." But through his characterization of Quackser, whom he considered to be innocent and likable, Wilder achieved what he wanted--a departure from the neurasthenic stereotype in the direction of the comic-romantic hero.

Again, it was chiefly Wilder's graceful performance in the title role of an eccentric candymaker that carried the musical fantasy for children Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Paramount, 1971), which Roald Dahl adapted from his book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A later musical mainly for children, Stanley Donen's The Little Prince (Paramount, 1974), based on Antoine de Saint Exupéry's semiclassic, featured Wilder as the Fox. Some critics deplored the waste of his talent on what they called a disappointment and a disaster, but others thought the film a joy.

The satirical Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (United Artists, 1972) gave Wilder the opportunity to work with Woody Allen, who, like Mel Brooks, ranks among the foremost American directors, writers, and actors of comedy. One of the funniest of the film's seven skits that reduce to absurdity Dr. David Reuben's popular manual is entitled "What is Sodomy?" and presents Wilder as a general practitioner who, called in to treat a shepherd stricken with love for a sheep named Daisy, becomes himself enamored of the sheep. Discussing the difference between the directing styles of Allen and Brooks with Mel Gussow of the new York Times (January 5, 1976), Wilder called Allen more "cerebral." He compared Allen's brand of humor to setting off "1,000 safety matches [that] flare up, make you laugh and die down." Brooks, on the other hand, according to Wilder, "wants to set off atom blasts of humor … He wants gigantic explosions."

Brooks gave full play to his raucous humor in Blazing Saddles (Warner Brothers, 1974), a parody of Hollywood westerns in which Wilder portrays n alcoholic gunslinger, Waco Kid, who with his black sidekick, Bart, saves the town form an unscrupulous land grabber. Considerable more cinematically disciplined than that uproarious comedy, Wilder's next picture under Brook's direction, Young Frankenstein (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1974), is another genre spoof, one that carefully re-creates parts of the 1931 Frankenstein film in it's parody of Mary Shelley's classic and the old horror movies. Besides conceiving the idea for the production, Wilder collaborated with Brooks on the screenplay and starred as Dr. Frankenstein, a California brain surgeon and teacher who is trying to live down the scandal of his ancestor, Baron Frankenstein, and visits Transylavania when he inherits the family castle. Zimmerman appraised Wilder's portrayal in Newsweek (December 23, 1974) as "his finest performance to date." In another 1974 film, the ill-fated screen version of Ionesco's Rhinoceros (American Film Theatre), Wilder had the leading role of Stanley (Berenger in the play), the only character who remains a human being.

When asked in interviews why he had become a screenwriter, Wilder explained that no one else was writing the roles that appealed to him, sad men who are funny. The commercial success of Young Frankenstein no doubt encouraged him in creating another screen hero for himself, this one the insanely jealous Sigerson Holmes, the title character of The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1975). That "romantic comedy," as Wilder classified it, spoofs not the revered Sherlock Holmes, but the period detective drama. The writer and star also directed Adventure, which was filmed In London and included in its cast such brilliant regulars of the Brooks-Wilder comedies as Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, and Dom DeLuise.

Among the critics who welcomed Gene Wilder's directorial debut was Gary Arnold, whose review of Adventure in the Washington Post (December 19, 1975) called attention to "a lyric streak of the madcap in Wilder" and to his "relatively subtle, ironic touch, which recalls the eccentric style of British film comedy." Arnold summed up, "Adventure isn't overwhelming, but it shows wit and flair." Somewhat similarly, comparing Wilder with Brooks, Derek Malcolm of the Guardian (December 18, 1975) found Wilder's touch to be "less frenetic … not so likely to bruise us half to death in the name of laughter. But it also lacks Brooks's bludgeoning energy, which can transform a comic set piece into a tour de force."

With The World's Greatest Lover (Paramount, 1977), his next comedy in the manner of Young Frankenstein and Adventure, Wilder went a step further, adding the function of producer to that of actor, scriptwriter, and director. He also wrote a song for the movie. As he had done in the earlier films, he approached the drafting of his story line and characters "with the magic 'if.'" In this instance, he related to Newsday's Seligsohn, he asked himself, "What would happen if a neurotic baker followed his compulsive dream of fame and romance to Hollywood…?" Claiming the title role for himself, Wilder played the Milwaukee baker, Rudy Valentine, who goes to Hollywood in the mid-1920's to try to compete with Valentino.

"Many of the nutty sequences are clever modern spin-offs on the art of the silent comedy masters whom Wilder clearly reveres," William Wolf wrote in Cue (January 6, 1978). "His reverence also extends to Fellini, whose White Sheik obviously provided further inspiration." One of the early scenes in The World's Greatest Lover, in which the baker gets trapped on the cake conveyor belt, is intended as a tribute to Charlie Chaplin, whom Wilder regards as his patron saint or spiritual father. Wilder has often said that his screenplays are "emotionally autobiographical." In re-creating the golden age of silent movies, he was less interested in authenticity than in his own childhood fantasies of the period.

Besides providing scripts tailored to his own style of acting, Wilder turned to writing in fulfillment of what he called "a maturing process." "I'm more concerned with what I'm expressing than with the act of expression itself," he was quoted as saying in the Guardian (December 15, 1975). But he also said that he hoped not to outgrow the desire to act. While continuing to star in his own films, he accepted the lead in Silver Streak (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1976), which he neither wrote nor directed. In that parody of North by Northwest and other train mysteries, Wilder is a romantic publisher who happens to witness a murder as a passenger on a crack Los Angeles-to-Chicago train. Joseph Gelmis' conclusion in Newsday (December 10, 1976), "Over wrought script and direction squander a talented cast," summed up critical opinion fairly well, but some reviewers felt that lively scenes of Wilder with Richard Pryor made the film worthwhile.

Gene Wilder's television roles include three of NBC's Dupont Show of the Week presentations during 1962: Muller in "The Sound of Hunting," Wilson in "the Interrogators, " and the Reporter in "Windfall." He appeared as the Head Waiter in "Reunion with Death" on The Defenders (CBS, 1962), Yonkel in "Home for Passover" on Eternal Light (NBC, 1966), and Bernard in Death of a Salesman (CBS, 1966). He was seen in the TV movie Thursday's Game (ABC, 1974) and Harry Evers and in the comedy-variety show Annie and the Hoods (ABC, 1974).

One of the members of the cast of Roots, along with Gene Wilder, was Mary Mercier, a playwright as well as an actress, whom he had married on July 22, 1960. The marriage broke up, and on October 27, 1967 he married Mary Joan Schutz (some sources give Jo Ayers as the name of his second wife). Before that marriage ended, also in divorce, he adopted his wife's daughter by her earlier marriage, Katharine Anastasia. The blue-eyed, curly blond-haired actor plays bridge and tennis in his spare time and has a serious, winsome manner offscreen that contrasts with the frantic carryings-on so enjoyable to his fans. "My quiet exterior used to be a mask for hysteria," he once said, as quoted in Time (July 20, 1970). "After seven years of analysis, if just became a habit."

References: Christian Sci Mon p9 Ja 29 '75 por; Cue 44::27 + N 8 '75 por; Guardian p8 D 15 '75 por; N Y Post p15 D 28 '74 por; N Y Sunday News mag p23 + Ja 18 '76 pors; N Y Times II p15 N 16 '69 por; Notable Names in the American Theatre (1976)

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