Nationality: American. Born: Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 11 June 1935. Education: Attended Black-Foxe Military Institute, Los Angeles; Washington High School, Milwaukee, graduated 1951; studied acting with Herman Gottlieb in Milwaukee; University of Iowa, Iowa City, B.A. 1955; Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, England 1955; Herbert Berghof Studio, New York; Actors Studio, New York, 1961. Military Service: Served in the U.S. Army at the neuropsychiatric ward of the Valley Forge Hospital, Pennsylvania, 1956–58. Family: Married 1) the actress Mary Mercier, 1960 (divorced), adopted daughter: Katharine Anastasia; 2) Mary Joan Schutz, 1967 (divorced 1974); 3) the actress Gilda Radner, 1984 (died 1989); 4) Karen Boyer, 1991. Career: 1961—stage debut in Roots , New York: later roles in Mother Courage and Her Children , 1963, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest , 1963, and Luv , 1966; 1967—film debut in Bonnie and Clyde ; 1975—directed first film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother ; 1994–95—in TV series Something Wilder . Address: c/o Pal-Mel Productions, 1511 Sawtelle Boulevard, Suite 155, Los Angeles, CA 90025, U.S.A.
Films as Actor:
Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn) (as Eugene Grizzard, undertaker)
The Producers (Mel Brooks) (as Leo Bloom)
Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (Hussein) (title role); Start the Revolution without Me (Yorkin) (as Claude/ Philippe)
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Stuart) (title role)
Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask (Woody Allen) (as Dr. Ross); Scarecrow (Schatzberg)
Thursday's Games (Moore—for TV, produced in 1971); Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks) (as Jim: The Waco Kid); The Little Prince (Donen) (as the Fox); Rhinoceros (O'Horgan) (as Stanley); Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks) (title role, + co-sc)
Silver Streak (Hiller) (as George Caldwell)
The Frisco Kid (Aldrich) (as Avram)
Stir Crazy (Poitier) (as Skip Donahue)
Hanky Panky (Poitier) (as Michael Jordon)
See No Evil, Hear No Evil (Hiller) (as Dave Lyons, + co-sc)
Funny about Love (Nimoy) (as Duffy Bergman)
Another You (Phillips) (as George/Abe Fielding)
Something Wilder (series for TV) (as Gene Bergman)
Murder in a Small Town (Joyce Chopra—for TV) (as Larry "Cash" Carter + co-sc); Alice in Wonderland (Willing) (as Mock Turtle); The Lady in Question (Joyce Chopra—for TV) (as Larry Carter + co-sc)
Films as Actor, Director, and Scriptwriter:
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (as Sigerson Holmes)
The World's Greatest Lover (as Rudolph Valentino)
"Skippy" ep. of Sunday Lovers ( Les Seducteurs ) (title role)
The Woman in Red (as Teddy Pierce)
Haunted Honeymoon (as Larry Abbot)
By WILDER: books-
Gilda's Disease: Sharing Personal Experiences and a Medical Perspective on Ovarian Cancer , with M. Steven Piver, Amherst, 1996.
By WILDER: articles—
Interview with R. Appelbaum, in Films (London), July 1981.
"Why Did Gilda Die?," in People Weekly (New York), 3 June 1991.
On WILDER: articles—
Current Biography 1978 , New York, 1978.
Swertlow, Frank, "Gene & Gilda," in TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 4 September 1993.
Wolf, M., "Wilder at Heart," in Variety (New York), 21/27 October 1996.
* * *
Both the modest success and the larger failure of Gene Wilder's film career must be traced to the contradictory images of masculinity which the American public has demanded of its movie industry in the last 20 years. On the one hand, Wilder's unthreatening sensitivity, his lack of strong sex appeal and charisma suit a public taste for more androgynous (or perhaps prepubescent) masculine figures. On the other hand, generally organized around idealized romantic fantasy, film narratives only with difficulty find a place for sensitized, androgynous males (unless of course, such a protagonist, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins , can embody a humorously unstable mixture of power and harmlessness).
Wilder's ordinary looks, unmanageable hair, and underdeveloped body make such impersonations impossible for him. This inability is ironically most evident in a film Wilder not only starred in but directed: The Woman in Red . The production belongs to a subgenre that attained a good deal of popularity in the 1970s and 1980s: the male midlife crisis romance/comedy. Though a partial critical success, the film was a commercial failure for a number of reasons, including its inability to combine humorous and serious approaches to infidelity and marital dissatisfaction. More important, however, Wilder could not project the sexual energy and despair needed to motor the plot; his character's obsession lacks a romantic intensity that can be sustained.
Woody Allen makes better use of Wilder's limitations in a minor role: that of the general practitioner who falls in love with a sheep in
Sharing the narrative accounts for Wilder's success in two films where he co-starred with Richard Pryor, Stir Crazy and See No Evil, Hear No Evil . In the former of these, Wilder's Skip Donahue is a restless idealist whose best friend (Pryor) is more streetwise. Sent to prison by mistake, Pryor convinces Wilder that he must "be bad" in order to survive, but Wilder defeats the conventionality of this wisdom by finding other conversions, the sensitive songster inside a huge fellow inmate, former terror of the institution. In the latter film Wilder's deaf character becomes allied with Pryor's blind man: at first full of self-pity, alienated from others, Wilder's character becomes sensitized and benevolent. The commercially successful Silver Streak is much the same, featuring a conversion to action and engagement, though this thriller lacks the romantic intensity of its obvious model, Hitchcock's North by Northwest .
Wilder's androgynous character suits him well for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory ; he does an interesting and similar turn as the Fox in The Little Prince . Given a religious and political inflection, however, this persona can be put to unusually effective use. In contrast to his other roles (with the exception of the highly anxious and hysterical Leo Bloom in The Producers ), which do not utilize his Jewishness, Wilder's Avram in The Frisco Kid is a rabbi, fresh from yeshiva in Poland, who emigrates to San Francisco to pastor a new congregation. Surviving a series of catastrophes, Avram meets up with a good/bad cowboy (played by Harrison Ford), from whom he learns about the gentile world. Avram falls into secularity, abandoning for a time the black coat and hat of the shtetl, though he is eventually reclaimed for an assimilationist form of Judaism. This extraordinary, if somewhat Capraesque film brings out the philosophical idealism implicit in the sensitivity and friendliness of the Wilder persona. The more recent Funny about Love elicits these qualities from the Wilder character's relationship with a young child.
Perhaps his most affecting performance, however, works yet another variation on androgyny: the genuine naïf, the mental defective whose goodness is reflexive, unalloyed, and presexual. As the title character in Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx , Wilder plays a man who takes continuing joy in the only job life has made available to him: collecting horseshit from the streets of Dublin. Like Avram, Quackser accepts the world as he finds it and loves other people for what he finds in them. Other people, however, do not measure up to his standards of loving kindness. In the larger context of the contemporary American cinema, however, these roles offer exceptional (and thus not widely appealing) versions of masculine strength and virtue. His undoubted success in them therefore could not make Wilder a star.
—R. Barton Palmer, updated by Linda J. Stewart