Gene Wilder's Memorable Roles
It’s impossible to pare down Gene Wilder’s filmography to just a handful of essential movies. Not only that, it’s hard to know where to start among the sure-fire classics. From 1968’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, to his iconic collaborations with Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, and his late wife Gilda Radner, Wilder — who died Aug. 28, 2016, at 83 — left behind a litany of films notable not just for their laughs, but for wit, warmth, and insight. Where else can we start except the beginning…?
'Bonnie and Clyde,' 1967
After years of stage work and bit parts on TV, Wilder (whose real name was Jerome Silberman) got his first major film role in Bonnie and Clyde as Eugene Grizzard, one of the outlaw pair’s hostages. It’s still a small part, but even in a movie packed with powerhouse performances, Wilder’s jittery undertaker crackles with his own negative energy. He’s a wet blanket on the fun they were having, and a bad omen foreshadowing the fate awaiting them.
'The Producers,' 1968
A year later, Wilder made an even bigger bigger smash in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, playing the tightly wound accountant Leo Bloom, who lets greed and lust draw him out of his modest life and into the madcap self-destructive moneymaking scam of wannabe Broadway impresario Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel, engines at full steam). Mostel is the bull in Wilder’s china shop, and this film encapsulates what made the younger actor so funny — he wasn’t trying to be funny. He was in serious trouble. Help! Why are you laughing?
'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,' 1971
Wilder revealed another side of his unique screen presence in this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s unsettling children’s book: a sinister, enigmatic intelligence. The actor could have been easily pigeon-holed as the innocent, neurotic type, the long-suffering straight man, but Willy Wonka showed that there was something behind those puppy-dog eyes that was… judging you. Wilder wanted to keep the audience guessing about whether Wonka was lying or telling the truth. Although he ultimately was revealed to have a soft, sweet center, the character’s tart, jagged exterior makes him a master class in contrasting flavors.
'Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask),' 1972
In one of the most outlandish sketches in a film brimming with them, it’s Wilder’s bookish skepticism that earns the laugh as a psychiatrist trying to treat a shepherd who is bereft that the sheep he loves no longer loves him. The taboo becomes ridiculous when Wilder’s dubious doctor finds himself thoughtfully stroking the ewe’s wool — then falling in love with her himself. The actors’ earnest innocence sells it. If one of them wasn’t a sheep, the arc of the relationship would be beautiful and tragic, two star-crossed lovers, fighting for connection in a cold, cruel world. Alas, it leaves the brokenhearted doctor trying to drown his sorrows in Woolite.
'Blazing Saddles,' 1974
Wilder reteamed with Brooks for this absurdist Western, a satire of race relations and a spoof of spurs-and-six-guns moviemaking. He costars as The Waco Kid (whose name is Jim, although most people call him… Jim), a recovering drunk who joins forces with Cleavon Little, the new sheriff in town, whose blackness makes the locals see red. Together they head off a nefarious railroad plot, skewer the dopiness of prejudice, and ride off into the sunset — in a limo.
'Young Frankenstein,' 1974
Wilder was the master of tightly wound characters who, thread by thread, unraveled until a howling madman emerged. In this third movie with Brooks, a send-up of gothic horror tales, the actor plays Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced Franken-STEEN) who brings life back to the dead — and even demonstrates the beast’s abilities with a show-stopping tap dance number. The script (which Wilder co-wrote) is silly stuff and often as low-brow as the suborbital ridge on Peter Boyle’s monster, but Wilder perfectly spoofs the fronting arrogance we all possess when we know only enough to get into trouble, but not enough to get out of it.
'The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother,' 1975
Wilder wrote, directed, and stars in this comedy about Sigerson, the younger brother of Sherlock Holmes, who is tired of his detective sibling getting all the attention. He considers himself much brighter and more astute that old “Sheer-luck” and is determined to prove it by solving a case that has stymied the great investigator. Wilder wrote the movie while working on Young Frankenstein and penned parts for his costars in that movie — Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman. While silliness abounds, Sigerson isn’t played as a goof. Again, it’s Wilder’s earnestness as the envious (but hopelessly inept) little brother that uncovers the humor.
'Silver Streak,' 1976
In the first of many collaborations with Richard Pryor (who co-wrote Blazing Saddles, but didn’t star in it), Wilder plays a shy book editor who thinks he witnesses a murder while on a cross-country train trip. After he is nearly killed and later accused of the crime himself, he steals a sheriff’s cruiser to escape, not noticing that there is a thief sitting in the back seat — Pryor, who contrasts his unbridled extroversion against Wilder’s imploding introversion. In one scene, Pryor disguises Wilder in blackface to help him get away. It’s cringe-inducing and wouldn’t happen in a movie today, but it illustrated the bond between two characters (and two performers) who seemingly had nothing in common — except deep trust and love for each other.
'The World's Greatest Lover,' 1977
Wilder’s second film as a writer-director pays homage to his love of old Hollywood, exploring a studio’s efforts to discover the next great star to compete with Rudolph Valentino during the silent era. Wilder plays Rudy Hickman, a baker by trade who thinks he has what it takes to become a romantic leading man. He doesn’t, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. He wants it all — even if it costs him everything.
'The Frisco Kid,' 1979
In one of Wilder’s stranger pairings, he stars as a Polish rabbi who comes to America in the mid-1800s to deliver a Torah scroll to a new synagogue in San Francisco. He ends up getting rolled by con men, falling in with some Amish folks (whom he mistakes as Orthodox Jews) and ultimately befriends a rough-riding bank robber played by Harrison Ford. It’s a fish-out-of-water story that critics didn’t love, but endures as a curiosity because of the unusual pairing. The script had existed for years, and in his autobiography, Wilder says that the original plan in the late 1960s was for John Wayne to play the Ford role.
'Stir Crazy,' 1980
In this second pairing for Wilder and Pryor, they play down-on-their-luck Hollywood types who take jobs dressing as birds for a bank promotion. While they are slacking off, robbers steal the costumes and stage a heist — and Pryor and Wilder end up arrested and imprisoned for the crime. That sets up a jailhouse comedy (directed by Sidney Poitier) that plays the men against type. This time, Pryor is the neurotic, terrified of life in the prison, and Wilder has a kind of streetwise zen, going with the flow in a bad situation and finding life isn’t so bad behind bars.
'Hanky Panky,' 1982
Poitier also directed this thriller-farce starring Wilder in the somewhat-recycled plot from Silver Streak — playing a man who witnesses a murder and then finds himself accused of it and on the run. It’s not especially well-remembered, but stands out because it brought together Wilder and Saturday Night Live’s Gilda Radner, who would go on to become both his wife and a steady collaborator over the next several years.
'The Woman in Red,' 1984
Radner and Wilder also costarred in this romantic lark, which Wilder wrote and directed. He plays an uptight, married middle-aged man who develops an obsession with a model (Kelly LeBrock) in an eye-catching red dress. While trying to arrange a rendezvous with her, he accidentally directs the invitation to a mousy colleague, played by Radner, who is enchanted by the offer and falls hard for a man who has no interest in her.
'Haunted Honeymoon,' 1986
Another tribute to the showmanship of yesteryear, this was a spooky-mansion comedy inspired by the world of old-time radio plays. It was Wilder’s final film as a writer-director, and the last movie Radner would star in before her death three years later from cancer. They played an engaged couple who return to his old family estate, where strange and sinister activities are afoot. Dom DeLuise costars in drag as his unusual Aunt Kate. Although the movie was a critical and commercial bomb, it was trending on social media after Wilder’s death, remembered fondly by those who found it a happy introduction to the trio.
'See No Evil, Hear No Evil,' 1989
Their third appearance onscreen didn’t muster the same fire as Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, and critics rolled their eyes at another murder farce. The twist this time? Pryor is blind, and Wilder is deaf. Both witness elements of the crime using their different senses, and they go on the run to avoid being killed themselves. Silver Streak filmmaker Arthur Hiller was back in the director’s chair, and a young Kevin Spacey plays one of the killers, but this one coasts mainly on the affection of those fans who enjoy the madcap chemistry between its two stars.
'Another You,' 1991
If the energy was waning in See No Evil, Hear No Evil, it was all but exhausted two years later in this film. Pryor had revealed several years before that he was battling multiple sclerosis, and he appeared shockingly frail in this role as a con man who joins forces with Wilder’s mental patient who can’t help but tell lies. It was poorly received by critics and at the box office, and stands as the last lead role in a movie for both men. Pryor’s condition deteriorated dramatically, and he died in 2005. Wilder said in his later years he grew tired of the process of making movies, and turned down most offers to return.
'Murder in a Small Town,' 1999
Wilder continued to work sporadically, but mainly in television. In the mid-1990s he starred in his own sitcom, Something Wilder, on NBC, but the show was canceled after one season. From there, he wrote and directed the A&E TV movie Murder in a Small Town, a lighthearted mystery set in New England during the Depression. It was designed to be a recurring series, but only one follow-up was made, The Lady in Question, which aired nearly a year later. Although there were rumors Wilder might return to film with a crucial role in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which is currently shooting in England, the actor was content to retire. His last credited role was in 2015, as the voice of an alien named Elmer in the children’s TV series Yo Gabba Gabba!