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