It seems this has been the year for losing beloved media icons, and it seems those particularly beloved of SF/F fans have been particularly hit. We started off with the loss of David Bowie (Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell To Earth), then came Alan Rickman (the Harry Potter films), Anton Yelchin (Star Trek), and most recently Kenny Baker (R2-D2 in the Star Wars films). And now, word comes that Gene Wilder, whose turn as the eponymous doctor in Young Frankenstein is probably the most popular take on the Mary Shelly classic, has passed away from complications due to Alzheimer’s.
Born Jerome Silberman, Gene got his start on the stage, playing off and eventually on Broadway. While doing Mother Courage and Her Children with Anne Bancroft, she noticed his natural comic abilities, and introduced him to her future husband, Mel Brooks. What came from that was some of the most memorable comic cinema ever made.
Playing the straight-laced accountant Leo Bloom against Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock in The Producers (1967), he quickly established his knack for playing even the most outrageous characters “straight”. In 1971 his turn in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory became an instant classic, and one that is still a favorite.
1974 was a watershed year for Wilder; in rapid succession he was seen teaming up with Zero again in the underrated film version of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, then Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, taking time in between to play the Fox in The Little Prince, based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
The rest of the seventies and eighties were, perhaps, not so kind: he did some films of varying memorability, including three with Richard Pryor. It was also around this time when he took a crack at the superhero world by becoming the (uncredited) voice of Letterman on public television’s The Electric Company (where he once again collaborated with Mostel, who played arch-villain The Spellbinder).
In 1989, Wilder lost his wife Gilda Radner to ovarian cancer. In tribute to her, he helped found Gilda’s Club, an organization providing support and community to people living with cancer and their families and friends. Now known as Cancer Support Community, it has 170 locations around the world.
He is survived by his wife Karen Boyer, and a child from a previous marriage.
Kelly Luck doesn’t know about you, but she’s going to be binge-watching some Gene Wilder movies tonight. Her other SciFi4Me work can be read here.