Gene Wilder, born Jerome Silberman, passed away on August 29, 2016 but he leaves behind an incredible legacy on film.
Gene Wilder was a last-minute replacement for the Waco Kid when the intended actor showed up drunk on the first day of filming. Mel Brooks shut down the set and Wilder was on the next plane out – Gene had already expressed interest in the role but Brooks thought he was too young, even offering the part to Johnny Carson, who turned it down (John Wayne also turned down a role, but insisted he’d be first in line to see it.)
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factor
After reading the script, Gene Wilder wanted the role under one condition: that he would be allowed to limp, then suddenly somersault in the scene when he first meets the children. When director Mel Stuart asked why, he replied that having Wonka do this meant that “from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.” The director asked, “If I say no, you won’t do the picture?” to which Gene replied “I’m afraid that’s the truth.”
There was no one else for the role. According to Mel Stuart, when Gene Wilder walked into the audition, he has the part before he even spoke a word. Stuart immediately chased him down the hallway, cut him off at the elevator bank, grabbed his arm and told him “You’re doing this picture, no two ways about it! You are Willy Wonka!” Sorry, Johnny Depp.
When Willy Wonka is seen drinking from a flower-shaped cup, send Gene Wilder a salute. Though the chocolate river was made from real chocolate and cream (which began to spoil and smell awfully bad), the cup is only made of wax, so Gene would have to chew and spit for every take.
Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder began writing Young Frankenstein on the set of Blazing Saddles. Wilder has always said it’s his favourite of all his films.
Wilder wrote the bit with “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and Mel Brooks hated it, thought it didn’t go with the rest of the vintage horror theme. Wilder has stated he defended the scene”close to rage and tears” and argued for the scene before Brooks stopped him and said, “It’s in!”. When Wilder asked why he had changed his mind, Brooks said that since Wilder had fought for it so hard, it must be the right thing to do. Only when audiences howled in laughter, however, was Brooks finally convinced.
Gene thought his script was so funny he ruined numerous takes giggling through scenes, much to Cloris Leachman’s annoyance. But according to Wilder, that’s what he and Brooks were always after: “We are not interested in polite titters, we want the audience rolling on the floor and falling about. Mel works on his feet — it’s a hit and miss, hit and miss, hit and miss. Then in the editing he will take out the misses!”
Gene Wilder was married to SNL funny lady Gilda Radner, until her death due to cancer in 1989.
Of her he said “I’m not so funny. Gilda was funny. I’m funny on camera sometimes. In life, once in a while. Once in a while. But she was funny. She spent more time worrying about being liked than anything else.” Gene and Gilda starred in 3 movies together- the first, Hanky Panky, was originally slated to co-star Richard Pryor but when he was forced to back out, the part was rewritten for her.
Gene Wilder consulted a speech pathologist for another movie he actually did do with Richard Pryor (one of many) called See No Evil, Hear No Evil. He liked the pathologist so much he married her, and they remained married until his death.
Gene’s list of credits goes on and on; truly a talented man worth remembering.