Gene Wilder, one of America’s most beloved comic actors, stole the hearts of many with his performances in movies like The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and especially as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Apart from being an actor, he was also a screenwriter, director, and producer for many films including The Woman in Red and especially Young Frankenstein for which he received Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. After living a long and fulfilling life, he has recently passed away, and to commemorate him, here are some lesser-known facts about Gene Wilder’s life.
1. Gene Wilder’s real name is Jerome Silberman. He changed his name because he could not see a “Jerry Silberman” playing Hamlet, though he also admitted he could not see “Gene Wilder” playing Hamlet either.
Like many actors of that time, Wilder decided to adopt a stage name when he was accepted into the Actors Studio in 1961. He chose the name “Wilder” because it reminded him of Thornton Wilder, the author of his favorite play Our Town. He chose the name “Gene” from Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe’s first novel, after the lead character, Eugene. He also liked the name “Gene” because as a child, he was very impressed by a distant relative who was a bomber navigator during World War II and was “handsome and looked great in his leather flight jacket.”(1, 2)
2. Wilder was born and raised in a Jewish family, but the only thing he believed in was the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Wilder’s father, William J. Silberman, was a Russian Jewish immigrant who worked as a manufacturer and salesman of novelty items. His mother, Jeanne Baer, was born in Illinois to Russian immigrant parents. Though Wilder did not believe in God or any religion, he stated that he feels very Jewish. He also jokingly refers to himself as a “Jewish-Buddhist-Atheist,” the Buddhist part relating to the time he sought healing when his wife Gilda Radner was suffering from cancer.(1, 2)
3. Gene Wilder became interested in acting at the age of eight when his mother was diagnosed with rheumatic fever and the doctor told him to “try and make her laugh.”
In 1941, Wilder’s mother had a heart attack because of rheumatic fever. When she was back from the hospital, the doctor whispered to him not to argue with her as it might kill her and to try and make her laugh. For years, he lived fearing that a few sharp words could fatally harm her and well-timed jokes could extend her life. Growing up, he also felt extremely guilty about being happy because his mother was suffering and in pain. So, every time he felt happy, he would feel the need to cut it off and pray for forgiveness.
When he was 11 years old, he saw his sister perform a monologue. He noticed how the audience, who were chattering till then, fell silent when the lights were off and the spotlight fell on his sister along with everyone’s attention. He stated in an interview that his mother being ill most of the time made him feel deprived of attention which he felt he could get while acting. So, he went to his sister’s teacher and asked if he could become his student. The teacher told Wilder to come back two years later if he still felt interested in acting. Wilder did, and the teacher accepted him as a student.(source)
4. When Wilder was studying at Black-Foxe, a military institute in Hollywood, he had to face bullying and assault as he was the only Jewish boy in the school.
When Wilder’s mother was ill, she heard about the Black-Foxe Military Institute from distant relatives and talked his father into sending him there. Wilder was 13 years old at that time and the only Jew in the school. The other kids would beat him up and bully him because of it. Though he wrote home about the bullying, his father kept it from his mother. When he came home for Christmas holidays, his body was covered in bruises from the beatings. Since the other students didn’t hit his face and he was wearing a full-sleeved uniform shirt, his mother did not notice anything wrong at first. Later when he was changing for dinner, his mother walked in and saw the bruises. After that, his parents pulled him out of the school.(1, 2)
5. Before becoming an actor, Wilder served in the US Army as a medic. He worked in treating psychiatric patients.
In 1956, a year after graduating in Communication and Theater Arts at the University of Iowa, Wilder was drafted into the US Army. After finishing the recruitment training, he was assigned to the medical corps and sent for training to Fort Sam Houston. He chose to serve as a paramedic in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania so that he could attend classes at HB Studio (Herbert Berghof Studio) in New York. Two years later, he was discharged from the army and returned to New York to continue studying acting.(1, 2)
6. Gene Wilder was a fan of Johnny Deep and refused to watch the 2005 remake of Willy Wonka because he didn’t want to be disappointed in Depp.
When Tim Burton made Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005 with Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka, it was received with many positive reviews. In 1971, Wilder played the same character in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the original adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel. When Burton offered Depp the role, he signed without reading the script and hoped to approach the role differently than how Wilder had done, also stating that Wilder’s characterization of Willy Wonka stood out as a unique portrayal. In 2007, Wilder stated that “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.”(source)
7. It was Gene Wilder who came up with the idea for Young Frankenstein and pitched it to Mel Brooks on the set of Blazing Saddles.
Following several box office failures including The Producers and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Wilder found success with Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) in 1972. Around this time, he came up with the idea of Victor Frankenstein’s grandson who inherits the mansion and the research. While he was writing the story, his agent, Mike Medavoy, approached him and suggested that he made a film with Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman. After watching Feldman in Dean Martin’s Comedy World, Wilder wrote the entire Transylvania train scene and sent it to Medavoy who suggested he talk to Mel Brooks about directing the film.
Brooks, however, was not sold on the idea in the beginning considering it just “cute,” and also because there were already several other Frankenstein movies. But Wilder approached him again during the last few weeks of shooting Blazing Saddles and told him that Frankenstein’s grandson doesn’t want anything to do with the family and that he was ashamed of the wackos. Brooks found the idea funny and they both began work on the script.(source)
8. Both his mother and his wife died of ovarian cancer. After that, he actively promoted cancer awareness and treatment and founded the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles.
Wilder’s mother died in November 1957 and his third wife, Gilda Radner, died in May 1989. After their marriage on September 14, 1984, they tried to have children, but Radner suffered miscarriages, and the doctors could not determine the cause. In October 1986, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Though it went into remission after a year and a half of treatment, it returned and spread to other parts of the body by May 1989 leading to her death. Following that, Wilder founded the cancer detection center and also co-founded Gilda’s Club, a support group that works towards raising awareness of cancer.
In 1998, Wilder also wrote the book Gilda’s Disease in collaboration with oncologist Steven Piver about his personal experiences while Radner was struggling with cancer. In 1999, Wilder himself was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma which went into complete remission by March 2005 following chemotherapy and stem cell transplant.(source)
9. Gene Wilder stopped making movies because he didn’t want to make films filled with violence, profanity, and nudity. He chose to write instead.
Wilder’s last appearance in a film was in 1991 in Another You and on television in 2002-2003 in three episodes of Will & Grace. After that, he began to focus on writing and wrote a few novels as well as memoirs. In an interview by Time Out New York magazine in 2013, Wilder stated that he would act again if there was a wonderful script, but that he was “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 .” Apart from writing, Wilder also enjoyed art and was a watercolor artist.(1, 2)
10. Gene Wilder died at home on August 29, 2016, while listening to one of his favorite songs – “Over the Rainbow” sung by Ella Fitzgerald.
Wilder died at the age of 83 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at his home in Stanford, Connecticut. He had been suffering from the disease for three years before his death. He chose not to make it public as he did not want the children’s delight at the thought of Willy Wonka to be mixed with worry, disappointment, or confusion. He was holding the hands of his family when he died. According to his family members, ” the music speaker, which was set to random, began to blare out one of his favorites – Ella Fitzgerald. There is a picture of Ella and him meeting at a London Bistro some years ago that are among each of their most cherished possessions. She was singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as he was taken away.”(1, 2)