Gire: Comedy icon Gene Wilder credited Mel Brooks for his movie career

 
 
Updated 8/29/2016 8:01 PM
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  • Gene Wilder stars in "Young Frankenstein," one of his three iconic comedies directed by Mel Brooks, whom the late star called "my Jewish mother."

    Gene Wilder stars in "Young Frankenstein," one of his three iconic comedies directed by Mel Brooks, whom the late star called "my Jewish mother." Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

  • Gene Wilder and Peter Ostrum co-star in the 1971 fantasy "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."

    Gene Wilder and Peter Ostrum co-star in the 1971 fantasy "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." File photo

"If it hadn't been for Mel Brooks putting me into 'The Producers,' I don't know if you and I would be talking today," Gene Wilder told me during an August 1984 interview.

"Mel is one of my favorite people. He was my father, my mother, my uncle, my brother, promoter, manager and agent. He was my Jewish mother. He was my pimp and pusher."

Brooks pimped and pushed the Milwaukee-born actor into three of the greatest comedies ever committed to celluloid: "The Producers" (as Broadway scam partner Leo Bloom), "Blazing Saddles" (as the lightning-fast Waco Kid) and "Young Frankenstein" (as Dr. Frankenstein with one messy head of hair).

Wilder, 83, died Monday from Alzheimer's disease. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1989.

Mel Brooks tweeted: "Gene Wilder -- One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship."

The iconic actor with the wild coif and gentle spirit leaves behind a rich legacy of baby-boomer movie treasures, including the popular "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and a string of comedies co-starring his friend and on-screen partner Richard Pryor. He received Oscar nominations for writing and acting in "Young Frankenstein" and "The Producers," respectively.

Wilder, born Jerry Silberman, began his movie career as a kidnapped undertaker in Arthur Penn's classic "Bonnie and Clyde."

Before that, he acted off-Broadway with "Roots" in 1961, followed by Graham Greene's Broadway comedy "The Complaisant Lover." A pivotal moment occurred when Brooks caught Wilder's performance in the 1963 production of "Mother Courage" starring Brooks' future wife, Anne Bancroft.

Other stage work followed, as did sporadic television broadcasts, including the 1966 production of "Death of a Salesman" with Lee J. Cobb.

But it took Brooks' discovery of the actor's quiet, quirky comic take on neuroses to catapult Wilder to stardom.

"I always played the parts he wished he could play," Wilder said when we met in 1984 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago. "He couldn't play the Waco Kid. He couldn't play Dr. Frankenstein. He couldn't be Leo Bloom. Anything he could imagine, I could do."

So, Wilder became Brooks' surrogate movie star.

"I'm not saying he shouldn't act in a movie," Wilder said, "but it comes out better when he directs and I act and we both write."

Wilder came to Chicago to promote his new movie "The Woman in Red," his directorial debut. It starred his then-girlfriend and future wife, "Saturday Night Live" regular Gilda Radner, who died from ovarian cancer five years later in 1989.

I asked about Radner.

"She's my fiancee," he said begrudgingly. I asked about a wedding date.

"It's a secret," he said. Then those liquid blue eyes turned to cold steel, signifying a change of topic.

The actor was exhausted during our interview. He'd been up too long, talking to too many reporters that day.

He had no other projects on his docket, so I asked him where he intended to go from here.

"To sleep," he said gently.

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