With Sunday’s death of actor Gene Wilder, Hollywood lost one of the defining voices of a bygone era in cinema. From Victor Frankenstein and Willy Wonka to the Waco Kid and Leo Bloom, Wilder tackled each of his roles throughout the 1960s and ’70s with a skilled precision, carving for himself a distinct brand of comedic delivery that captivated both audiences and the film industry (his peers nominated him for two Academy Awards during his career) alike.
Though Wilder remained largely absent from the screen since 1999 (he appeared on two episodes of Will & Grace in 2002 and 2003, and later lent his voice to a character on one episode of Yo Gabba Gabba! in 2015), his legacy is found in the roles he breathed life into throughout his storied career.
As Willy Wonka best said, “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men,” so read on to find out where you can savor Wilder’s best comedic roles — from the overtly hilarious to the unabashedly whimsical — in the list, below.The Producers (1968)
The first film directed by Mel Brooks, The Producers stars Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom, an accountant who convinces a Broadway producer, Max (Zero Mostel) to try to make a profit via the unorthodox method of deliberately producing a flop. Wilder received his first Academy Award nomination for his performance in the comedy, which also won Brooks his first (and only) Oscar for writing the movie’s original screenplay.
Perhaps containing Wilder’s most iconic role, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory has become a worldwide classic since its 1971 release. The film follows a young boy, Charlie, who receives a highly-coveted invitation to tour a famous chocolate factory owned by the peculiar Willy Wonka (Wilder). The fantasy musical, based on Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, earned its status as a fixture in pop culture over the years, the popularity of which spawned a successful Tim Burton-directed remake in 2005 and countless internet memes that circulate to this day.
Wilder re-teamed with Mel Brooks on the 1974 satirical western comedy Blazing Saddles, in which the former plays an alcoholic who helps his town’s fledgling sheriff (Cleavon Little) ease into his new role. The film was ranked at No. 6 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Funniest Movies list, beating out several other Wilder vehicles, including The Producers (No. 11), Young Frankenstein (No. 13), and Silver Streak (No. 95)
Marking yet another successful collaboration, Brooks enlisted Wilder yet again for a starring role in 1974’s Young Frankenstein, a horror-comedy which earned the actor his second Academy Award nomination — this time for co-writing the film’s screenplay with Brooks. The film follows the grandson of the infamous Dr. Frankenstein, Frederick, who travels to Transylvania after inheriting his family’s mysterious estate.
Young Frankenstein was a box office hit, grossing $86.3 million during its domestic run, which amounts to approximately $395 million when adjusted for inflation.
Wilder continued his successful string of comedy releases into the late 1970s with Silver Streak, an action-crime laugher which stars the actor as a book editor traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago via train. While on board, he falls for another passenger, Hilly (Jill Clayburgh), though he later witnesses and is subsequently accused of a murder. He works together with a car thief, Grover (Richard Pryor), to locate the kidnapped Hilly after the true criminals eject him from the train and abscond with his new love interest. The film marks the first time Pryor worked with Wilder in a major film, and they would later go on to make several more movies together.
Acclaimed actor Sidney Poitier directed Wilder and Pryor in this 1980 comedy four years after they first starred together in Silver Streak. The film revolves around two men — one a writer, the other an actor — framed for a bank robbery while on a road trip to Hollywood, where they plan to pursue a new life.
The movie grossed $101.3 million on a $10 million budget, which, adjusted for inflation, amounts to more than $326 million.