Yet another famous name has become a victim of 2016. Red hair, brown hat, and an eccentric violet costume: the character of Willy Wonka was a defining image of many childhoods. A face filled with fun, laughter, and mystery: Gene Wilder was certainly one of the most unforgettable actors of our times, performing in iconic roles from Willy Wonka to Dr. Doug Ross. Yet there was also a man behind the motion pictures, who led a life more amazing than any of his characters. Following are some interesting facts about his life, because that is the only way we have to honor him: telling his story.
“Try and make her laugh,” or how Wilder fell in love with acting
He was born Jerome Silberman, only to adopt his stage name at 26 because, as he explained, “I had always liked Gene because of Thomas Wolfe’s character Eugene Gant in Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River. And I was always a great admirer of Thornton Wilder.” He was eight when he became interested in acting. His mother had been diagnosed with rheumatic fever, and the doctor told him to “try and make her laugh.” The world turned upside-down for Gene when he saw his sister, who was studying acting, performing onstage. That’s the moment when he fell in love with the stage, the theater, and acting. He immediately approached his sister’s teacher and asked her if she would take him as a student. His answer was that if he were still interested at age thirteen, he would take Wilder on as a student. The day after Wilder turned thirteen, he called the teacher, who immediately accepted him. He studied with her for two years.
Gene’s first role was Balthasar – Romeo’s manservant
His mother, Jeanne Silberman was the first one to realize that her son’s potential could never be fully realized in Wisconsin, so she sent him to Black-Foxe, a military institute in Hollywood. However, the best intentions quite often end up with worst results. Wilder wrote that he was bullied and sexually assaulted while in Black-Foxe, primarily because he was the only Jewish boy in the school. After an unsuccessful short stay at the academy, Wilder returned home and became increasingly involved with the theater community. He was only fifteen when he performed for the first time in front of a paying audience, as Balthasar (Romeo’s manservant) in a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Gene Wilder studied Communication and Theatre Arts at the University of Iowa, where he was a member of the Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity. Following his 1955 graduation from Iowa, he was accepted at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England. And there, he soon picked up a new hobby: fencing. And that’s not all. After six months Wilder became the first freshman to win the All-School Fencing Championship. Later on, he also served as a fencing choreographer in movies.
Paramedic and limousine driver
Wilder was drafted into the Army on September 10, 1956. At the end of recruit training, he was assigned to the medical corps and sent to Fort Sam Houston in Texas. He was then given the opportunity to choose any post that was open, and wanting to stay near New York City to attend acting classes at the HB Studio, he opted to serve as a paramedic in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Valley Forge Army Hospital, in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. In November 1957, his mother died from ovarian cancer. He was discharged from the army a year later and returned to New York. A scholarship to the HB Studio allowed him to become a full-time student. At first living on unemployment insurance and some savings, he later supported himself with odd jobs such as a limousine driver and fencing instructor.
Stanislavski’s system and Lee Strasberg’s methods
Desiring to study Stanislavski’s system, he returned to the U.S., living with his sister and her family in Queens. Gene Wilder’s first professional acting job was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he played the Second Officer in Herbert Berghof’s production of Twelfth Night. After three years of study with Berghof and Uta Hagen at the HB Studio, Charles Grodin told Wilder about Lee Strasberg’s method acting. Grodin persuaded him to leave the studio and begin studying with Strasberg in his private class. Several months later, Wilder was accepted into the Actors’ Studio. Feeling that “Jerry Silberman in Macbeth” did not have the right ring to it, he adopted his stage name.
Willy Wonka: an iconic role
In 1971, Wilder auditioned to play Willy Wonka in Mel Stuart’s film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. After reciting some lines, Wilder prepared to leave the auditioning station, but Mel Stuart (who was a Gene Wilder fan) ran after him, offering the role to Wilder immediately. He was initially hesitant when he learned more about the role but finally accepted under one condition. He said that when he makes his first entrance, he would like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As he walks toward them, his cane sinks into one of the cobblestones he is walking on and stands straight up by itself, but he keeps on walking until he realizes that he no longer has his cane. He starts to fall forward, and just before he hits the ground, he does a beautiful forward somersault and bounces back up, to great applause.
He completely disliked Burton’s remake of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.“
In 2007, Wilder said he chose not to see the film. “The thing that put me off … I like Johnny Depp, I like him, as an actor I like him very much … but when I saw little pieces in the promotion of what he was doing, I said I don’t want to see the film, because I don’t want to be disappointed in him.” In 2013, Wilder called the film “an insult.” He also criticized the choices that Burton made as a director, saying “I don’t care for that director. He’s a talented man, but I don’t care for him doing stuff like he did.” In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Gene accused the filmmakers of only remaking the 1971 film for the purpose of money. Depp said he was disappointed by Wilder’s comment, and responded that the film was not a remake, but a new adaptation of Dahl’s 1964 book.
Wilder was married four times
His wife Gilda died from cancer in 1989. Following her death he became active in promoting cancer awareness and treatment, helping found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles and co-founding Gilda’s Club, a support group to raise awareness of cancer that began in New York City and now has branches throughout the country.
While preparing for his role as a deaf man in See No Evil, Hear No Evil, he worked with Karen Webb, who was a clinical supervisor for the New York League for the Hard of Hearing. Webb coached him in lip reading. Following Gilda Radner’s death, Wilder and Webb reconnected, and on September 8, 1991, they married.
He was Jewish-Buddhist and a Democrat, and…
Wilder was raised Jewish, but he held only the Golden Rule as his philosophy. In a book published in 2005, he stated, “I have no other religion. I feel very Jewish, and I feel very grateful to be Jewish. But I don’t believe in God or anything to do with the Jewish religion”.
He was a supporter of the Democratic Party, and staunchly opposed U.S. actions in the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. He supported Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 presidential election.
Wilder also played the congas on Talking Heads’ 1979’s album Fear of Music.
He didn’t accept a role after 1999
When asked in a 2013 Time Out New York magazine interview whether he would act again if a suitable film project came his way, Wilder responded, “I’m tired of watching the bombing, shooting, killing, swearing and 3-D. I get 52 movies a year sent to me, and maybe there are three good [ones]. That’s why I went into writing. It’s not that I wouldn’t act again. I’d say, ‘Give me the script. If it’s something wonderful, I’ll do it.’ But I don’t get anything like that.”
R.I.P. Gene Wilder: June 11, 1933 – August 29, 2016.