One of the most iconic characters ever seen in a kid’s movie.
Co-star of what is regarded by many as the funniest movie of all-time.
Co-star of another comedy that is considered one of the greatest of its ilk.
An Oscar nomination for writing the above comedy.
An Oscar nomination for acting in yet another legendary, boundary-pushing comedy.
Most actors or actresses would sell their soul for just one of the above to appear in a synopsis of their career. But Gene Wilder accomplished them all between 1967-1974 while he and Mel Brooks literally re-wrote the American film comedy. And he did it while keeping his soul intact, as well as his dignity and reputation.
I can’t remember the first time I watched “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. But once I did, I know I couldn’t stop watching it. And as ’70s kid lucky enough to have HBO, I watched the shit out of it (seriously, the schedule just repeated the same few movies, like some lazyman’s DVR). It wasn’t one of those candy-ass Disney flicks that never did anything for me. It was weird, dark, and creepy (and made in Europe!). It was also funny, imaginative, and loaded with lessons on how to not be an asshole kid.
But without Gene Wilder, the movie is forgettable (like, say, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). He imbued Wonka with a sardonic distance that realistically shouldn’t have been anywhere near a kid flick. I mean, Willy Wonka was kind of dick to these kids. But only because they deserved it; you found yourself pulling for the candy man instead of the meddling bastards ruining his factory. Yet through his pure charm and talent, Wilder pulled off this performance that was seemingly ahead of its time. Once I saw him do that walk-out/flip/land on his feet thing the first time, I was all in on Gene Wilder.
Three years later, “Blazing Saddles”, a rousing satire on racism, Hollywood, and the West, cracked up audiences from coast-to-coast and further solidified Wilder as a comedic force (after the success of “The Producers” in 1967; he also had a bit part in “Bonnie and Clyde”). But unlike harried, close-to-losing-it characters that Wilder would be known for, his laid-back Jim the Waco Kid showed another side to the actor’s repertoire. His easy chemistry with co-star Cleavon Little (who replaced writer Richard Pryor) gave “Saddles” its heart and was a big reason why it’s arguably the most popular comedy ever made. And despite its continued relevance, it’s a movie that simply would not get made today.
Most actors are lucky to make one iconic movie in a decade. Wilder released two in the same year. 10 months after “Blazing Saddles”, “Young Frankenstein” was released to much fanfare and acclaim. The black and white film lovingly poked fun at horror movies and made it so you’ll never listen to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” the same way again. Here, Wilder was allowed to really stretch his comedic shops as the doctor of the title.
After “Young Frankenstein”, Wilder made a pair of cult-classics with comedy superstar Pryor, “Silver Streak” and “Stir Crazy”, as well as “The Frisco Kid” with Harrison Ford. The quality of his output did take a precipitous dip in the mid-’80s before Wilder essentially retired from film after his fourth movie with Richard Pryor, the forgettable “Another You” (though he should get props for introducing us to Kelly LeBrock in “The Woman in Red”). TV movies and a couple of “Will and Grace” episodes followed.
But the last handful of years didn’t matter because Wilder’s legacy was secured over 40 years ago. “The Producers”. “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. “Blazing Saddles”. “Young Frankenstein”. It’s a cliché to say but it really doesn’t get any better than that. Thank you, Gene Wilder, for the many, many smiles and memories your movies have provided us. You were truly one of kind.