While discussing the sad news of Gene Wilder’s passing today it became abundantly clear that everyone has their own treasured connection to the legendary comedic actor, so we asked some of our writers to share what it is about Wilder’s roles that stood out for them.
The Producers (1967)
Gene Wilder was many things, including the master of playing men who were just barely keeping it together. He hides his damage beneath a cool veneer as Blazing Saddles‘ The Waco Kid and tapdances on the brink of madness in Young Frankenstein. Even Willy Wonka, for all his kindness to Charlie, is a bit of a sadist and a control freak. But those characters look positively composed compared to Wilder’s work as Leo Bloom in The Producers, Mel Brooks’ directorial debut and the first of several memorable pairings between the director and actor. An easily unnerved accountant, Bloom finds himself in over his head when he’s roped into a scheme to defraud would-be patrons of the arts by staging a flop play. Even before agreeing to the scheme, Bloom can barely handle working for producer Max Bialystock. Much of the pleasure comes from watching an already unraveling man completely fall apart — while also watching him find himself as he entertains dreams he’d never imagined for himself while living on the right side of the law. – Keith Phipps
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Johnny Depp tried to be Willy Wonka, and he failed. Matthew Broderick tried to be Leo Bloom, and he failed. No one tried to be the Waco Kid.
Blazing Saddles would never get remade in the 21st century, yes, but also, who’d have the audacity to try (and inevitably fail) to recapture the sweaty, alcoholic sadness that is Gene Wilder’s performance? He was best known for his “big” scenes — think the “Good day, sir” rant from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, or his wild-haired “it’s alive” exclamation in Young Frankenstein — and he was great at them. But it was Wilder’s ability to nail the smaller, more tender moments, like the way he wistfully yearns to go “nowhere special” in Blazing Saddles, that made him special. – Josh Kurp
Haunted Honeymoon (1986)
Despite its lack of box office success and a mixed reaction from critics, Haunted Honeymoon was and forever will be a Gene Wilder classic. I remember falling asleep to Wilder as manic-yet-endearing Larry Abbott at least a few dozen times a year as a kid, and even then I appreciated how he and Gilda Radner were so incredibly talented and in love. They were perfect for a mid-’80s vaudevillian romp full of turns of phrase, puns, and confused drunks. It may not be Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles or Willy Wonka, but Haunted Honeymoon is still pure Wilder and absolutely worth enjoying. Consider it his least-appreciated film. – Jason Nawara
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Until Young Frankenstein, Wilder’s work in front of and behind the camera was largely the result of others’ ideas. Sure, his performances were interpretations of the writer’s words and the director’s orders, but the original ideas he was interpreting were someone else’s. While filming Blazing Saddles with Mel Brooks, however, he confessed to the director an idea he had for a Frankenstein adaptation. “What if the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the family whatsoever? He was ashamed of those wackos,” Brooks later recalled in a Los Angeles Times interview. What resulted was Young Frankenstein, a brilliant and hugely popular horror comedy combining Wilder’s signature onscreen emotional slapstick with his burgeoning writerly wit. (With a little help from Brooks, of course.) A movie that offers fans a great, silly story, and young filmmakers a blueprint for parody’s inner mechanisms and best practices. – Andrew Husband
Start The Revolution Without Me (1970)
It’s not his best-known movie, but Start The Revolution Without Me is an underseen Wilder gem that emphasizes both his skill and generosity as an actor. Wilder plays two characters, a bumbling but gentle French peasant and a sneering martinet of an aristocrat. Just look at the scene above.
Phillippe shouldn’t be funny. This entire scene is basically the guy being a horrible human being to his wife. But Wilder so expertly plays off Rosalind Knight, and lets her drive the scene, that we both see why this woman is scared of her husband and can laugh at the same time. That sort of adaptability and range is why Wilder will be missed, and why he’s a role model for so many comedians. – Dan Seitz
See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989)
Gene Wilder’s third outing with Richard Pryor, after Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, is a testament to their exquisite timing. Pryor plays Wally, a blind man who befriends a deaf man, Dave, played by Wilder. Together the two create a kind of seamless reciprocity, where neither is really the straight man or the fool. It’s an underrated ’80s gem featuring two titans of industry playing off one another beautifully that I inexplicably couldn’t stop watching as a child. – Christian Long
The Woman In Red (1984)
Before she burst through a bedroom door as the computer-generated Lisa in Weird Science, Kelly Le Brock was Charlotte in Gene Wilder’s The Woman in Red. I didn’t see this movie in 1984, because I was too busy eating paste and napping at school, but I caught it five years later on HBO when I was finally old enough to be affected by the scene. Now, this is important not because it introduced a pervy kid to Le Brock, but because it introduced a blossoming smartass to the comedy of Gene Wilder. Fortunately, I had a friend whose older brother was already pushing Richard Pryor on him, so soon we were watching Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, and eventually See No Evil, Hear No Evil (of which I remember cursing Roger Ebert’s name when he gave it a bad review; same with Haunted Honeymoon). Simply put: The Woman in Red was my Gene Wilder gateway drug. – Ashley Burns
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)
Through the eyes of a child, Gene Wilder was always Willy Wonka and Willy Wonka — the mysterious, silly, and slightly mad candy titan — was pure magic. He introduced himself in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory with a tumble after a ruse, a goof that began a journey wherein he was always one step ahead and always in favor of chaos and his own amusement. That plus abundant chocolate, songs, and a clear disregard for rules and the status quo: Could there be a more appealing character to a child?
Despite the brilliance that Wilder applied to several different roles, is there a more smile-inducing thought of him than one where he’s singing about “imagination” and “paradise” while kicking large gumballs around? – Jason Tabrys