I am sure you would have heard by now that our beloved original Willy Wonka, Gene Wilder is no more. While many of the younger generation has come to associate Willy Wonka, the iconic owner of the Chocolate factory with Jonny Depp, it was originally played by Gene Wilder and it was a much more memorable performance than Depp’s. As the world fares goodbye to the legendary actor who influenced the middle ages of the cinema, let us look at the life of the man and the star who brought so much happiness into the world and captivated us with his amazing performances.
Russian Background of Gene Wilder
Gene Wilder was born in Wisconsin in 1933 to a Russian immigrant father and ironically displayed first displayed a talent for comedy as a very young boy when his mother was diagnosed with rheumatic fever. The doctor asked him to try and make her laugh as it would help her get better and Gene probably learned the importance art of comedy trying to make his ill mother laugh. Now young Gene started considering acting classes when he was eleven and got impressed with his own sister’s performance in a school play.
He immediately went to the teacher and asked her whether he could get admission in the acting class and became his regular pupil a couple of years later since he was too young at that time. Now his natural acting education was of theatre and live performance and by the time he was 26, he shed his birth name Jerome Silberman and set his stage name as Gene Wilder which would stick with him throughout his glittering career.
Gene Wilder as Actor
His first performance in front of a live paying audience was when he was just fifteen years old. He played Balthasar, who was a manservant of Romeo in a local production of Romeo and Juliet. He gradually made his name in theatre and later on went to the University of Iowa for a college education in Communication and Theatre Arts. He did further studies in the famous Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in England and returned afterwards to work in HB studio. His early career was disrupted when he was drafted into the army in 1956 and he was assigned to the medical corps.
He was later released in 1958 from military duty and then returned to New York and carried on where he left off at HB Studio. Now he still had to support himself and did odd jobs like driving limousines and serving as fencing instructor, a sport he had mastered in England. He also supervised fencing choreography in theatre t support himself.
His career slowly and steadily progressed and there he changed his name to Gene Wilder. Gene after his WW II veteran distant relative and Wilder after Our Town author named Thornton Wilder. His first critically acclaimed role was in Graham Greene’s The Complaisant Lover and was named the best actor in a non-featured role.
His first lead role was in Mother Courage and her Children, which included Anne Bancroft who introduced Wilder to her boyfriend Mel Brooks and it is from here that an ideal relationship was developed between the two men that gifted us many great things. His first role in a film was a minor part in the famous Arthur Clyne’s Bonnie and Clyde. His first film with his favorite writer/director Mel Brooks was The Producers in 1968 and it went on to become a cult classic among all comedy films and gave Mel Brooks his first academy award for an original screenplay.
Wilder was also nominated but didn’t win. Now this film didn’t perform that well in the box office despite being critically acclaimed and since many people didn’t see it, Wilder was on a mission now to make a fil that will appeal to the masses and bring smiles to a large number of people.
After a brief respite away from America, he returned to play the lead role of Willy Wonka in an adaptation of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory novel in 1971. This movie is widely considered as the single biggest achievement of Wilder’s career with the portrayal of the eccentric chocolate factory owner to become the most iconic performances ever. It is hard to mention Wilder but not his Willy Wonka character.
This very portrayal earned him a legendary status and the tenacity of his acting made him an actor who could easily hold on his own in any comedy movie. His subsequent adept appearance in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) movie alone earned the production house $18 million against a small $2 million budget.
A Wonderful Person
He had such an impact on both these films that he started trying with comedy and films on his own. He co-wrote and acted in The Young Frankenstein with his old friend Mel Brooks and the movie was earned $87 million on a $2 million dollar budget along with critical acclaim. His wonderful persona and a kind of method acting for each part he played was quite unparalleled in the comedy world. He did more free movies in the coming years and wrote novels and other books but for the cinema goers he will be remembered by these three films above all. You should watch these amazing works if you really are a true movie-lover.
Gene Wilder suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in his latter years but he didn’t tell anybody about it. According to him, it would remove the smile from many people’s faces and he didn’t want to see that. He continued to appear on TV shows and sitcoms until the last few years when the disease became too strong, even for him. He passed away August 29 this year and hence, the original Willy Wonka was no more. His work is around us and continues to inspire new comedians who want to truly master this wonderful art like he did.