Gene Wilder unsure of his comic talent despite series of stellar roles


Gene Wilder started his acting career on the stage, but millions knew him from his work in the movies, especially his collaborations with Mel Brooks.

With his unkempt hair and big eyes, Wilder was a master at playing panicked characters caught up in schemes that only Brooks could devise, whether reviving a monster in Young Frankenstein or bilking Broadway in The Producers.

Brooks would call him "God's perfect prey, the victim in all of us".

But he also knew how to keep it cool as the boozing gunslinger in Blazing Saddles or the charming candy man in the children's favourite Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory.

Wilder was close friends with Richard Pryor and their contrasting personas -- Wilder uptight, Pryor loose -- were ideal for comedy. They co-starred in four films: Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You.

Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor (AP/PA)

But Wilder would insist in a 2013 interview that he was no comedian, saying it was the biggest misconception about him.

"What a comic, what a funny guy, all that stuff! And I'm not. I'm really not. Except in a comedy in films," Wilder said.

"But I make my wife laugh once or twice in the house, but nothing special. But when people see me in a movie and it's funny then they stop and say things to me about 'how funny you were'. But I don't think I'm that funny. I think I can be in the movies."

Born Jerome Silberman in Wisconsin in 1933, Wilder was the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant father and his mother was of Polish descent.

When he was six, Wilder's mother suffered a heart attack that left her a semi-invalid. He soon began improvising comedy skits to entertain her, the first indication of his future career.

He attended a military school in Hollywood but became interested in acting in his teens.

Gene Wilder (Dave Pickoff/AP/PA)

He later moved to England to study at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

After returning to America he did a stint in the Army before moving to Pennsylvania where he pursued his dream of acting.

Supporting himself with odd jobs such as driving a limo, he landed his first professional acting job in a production of Twelfth Night.

He was married twice in the 60s then tied the knot with Gilda Radner in 1964. She died of ovarian cancer in May 1989 and Wilder went on to establish a Los Angeles cancer detection centre in her name.

Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner (AP/PA)

He made his television debut in 1962 and was then cast as a hostage in the 1967 film Bonnie And Clyde.

However, Wilder's first significant role was in the 1968 film The Producers.

The movie was the first he worked on with Brooks, and started a long working relationship that included Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

Mel Brooks (PA)

It also earned him his first Oscar nomination.

Wilder worked mostly in television in recent years, including appearances on Will & Grace -- including one that earned him an Emmy Award for outstanding guest actor -- and a starring role in the short-lived sitcom Something Wilder.

In 2015, he was among the voices in the animated The Yo Gabba Gabba! Movie 2.

However, in later life, the actor became disillusioned with the limelight and turned to writing, releasing three novels and a collection of stories.

In 2013, asked if he would act again, he said he would only do it if "something wonderful" was offered to him.

Wilder is survived by his fourth wife, Karen, whom he married in 1991, and his daughter from a previous marriage, Katherine, from whom he was estranged.