Gene Wilder died this past Sunday at home in Connecticut after a three-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Best known for playing Willy Wonka and the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, most obituaries left out the detail that Wilder was drafted into the Army in 1956.
Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wilder served under that name. He was assigned to the medical corps and trained at Fort Sam Houston. After training, he was assigned to the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where he worked as a paramedic. He was honorably discharged in 1958 and started calling himself Gene Wilder in 1959
After working in television, Wilder made his film debut in 1967 as Eugene Grizzard in Bonnie and Clyde, in which his character is kidnaped by the Barrow gang when they hijack his car. It’s a small role, but Wilder holds his own with future Oscar winners Warren Beatty, Gene Hackman, Faye Dunaway and Estelle Parsons.
That same year, he began a long collaboration with director Mel Brooks in The Producers, an outrageous farce about Broadway producers who plan to fleece investors by overselling shares in a guaranteed flop stage musical. Unfortunately, audiences think Springtime for Hitler is brilliantly satirical instead of grossly offensive and the scheme unravels. Wilder is Leo Bloom, the nervous accountant lured into the scheme by the hustling showman Max Bialystock, played with sweaty verve by Zero Mostel.
It’s a bit ironic that Wilder may be best remembered for playing the lead in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, a movie that flopped at the box office in 1971 but has since become one of the most beloved children’s movies of all time through TV and home video. Wilder’s Wonka is a slightly menacing figure, the kind of complex character that kids didn’t get to see back then. Plus he inspired the Sarcastic Wonka meme. How could the internet exist without it?
Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles was a huge hit and may be the most beloved offensively dumb movie of all time. In this satire of westerns, Wilder plays the Waco Kid, an alcoholic gunslinger who allies with Sheriff Bart, a former railroad worker, to save the town of Red Rock from a land-grab scheme led by State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman). This is one of the movies that inspired dads all over America to buy their first VCR, just so they could watch it anytime they wanted.
In Young Frankenstein, Wilder plays the grandson of the infamous Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Trying to escape his family’s past in America, he insists that his name is pronounced “Fronkenshteen.” Lured back to Transylvania by an inheritance, he reads his grandfather’s journals and takes up the family business. Marty Feldman plays the lab assistant Igor (EYE-gor) and Peter Boyle is the monster. Mel Brooks shot this in black & white and also released it in 1974. Blazing Saddles was so huge that Brooks had the momentum to release a B&W hit long after Hollywood had abandoned the format.
Wilder’s last great successes were a quartet of movies he made with Richard Pryor. Silver Streak (1976) was the first and the best. Directed by Canadian WWII veteran Arthur Hiller, the movie tries to be an action thriller and comedy at the same time and (mostly) succeeds. Wilder plays a book editor traveling cross-country on a train. He thinks he sees a dead body thrown from the train and eventually decides to investigate on his own when no one believes him. That just inspires the bad guys to try to kill him and he eventually unravels the mystery with the aid of an escaped prisoner played by Pryor. Wilder almost gets away with disguising himself in blackface to elude the killers, but it’s pretty uncomfortable to watch forty years later.
In his later years, Gene Wilder retired from acting and became a novelist. His movie specialty was playing men who became unhinged under pressure, a skill that might have been influenced by his paramedic days in an Army psych hospital.