By Olivia Jordan
I’m ashamed to admit that even as a self-proclaimed comedy nerd, I didn’t know much about the legend Gene Wilder. Like many young people, I vaguely recognized him as the “other guy,” the actor who played Willy Wonka before Johnny Depp’s 2005 portrayal. More precisely, I knew him as the face of the ubiquitous “Condescending Wonka” meme. Wilder’s face, taken as a screengrab from the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie has been paired with a myriad snarky and condescending texts, the popularity of which secured its place in the — unofficial — memester starter pack. However, Gene Wilder, unlike most Internet meme stars, created a legacy for himself that stretches far beyond making middle-school students chuckle as they scroll through their Facebook accounts. A true star, Wilder embodied uniqueness, resilience, and perhaps most important, true humanity.
Like many of the greatest comics, Wilder found comedy in times of pain as a young man. Born Jerome Silberman in 1933 — the child of Russian Jewish immigrants — young Gene watched as his mother suffered from complications of a rheumatic heart disease. A doctor told him that making his mother laugh could improve her quality of life. From that piece of advice, his comedic career and his lifetime of kindness were born.
As a young adult, his mother sent him to a military institute in Hollywood, CA, where he was teased and sexually assaulted for being Jewish. After his short and traumatic stint at the school, Wilder returned to his home in Wisconsin and became involved with community theater. In his next few years he earned his undergraduate degree and served in the Army. After being discharged, Wilder got his first professional acting job and spent his next years studying his craft at the renowned Actors Studio. He made a name for himself in the Off-Broadway scene after landing a few small but memorable roles.
In 1963 Wilder secured the leading role in a Broadway show called Mother Courage and Her Children. During the play’s run, one of his co-stars introduced him to Mel Brooks, a circumstantial meeting that changed the course of his career. Brooks cast Gene Wilder in one of the leading roles in his first feature film, 1968’s cult classic, The Producers—the start of Wilder’s long and successful career as a leading man in comedy.
Somewhat of an unconventional leading man, Wilder’s face didn’t seem right for giant movie posters. With his unkempt looking curly hair, huge twinkling eyes, and unchiseled features, he didn’t look like the typical lean, tall, marble-cut leading men of his day. But he emerged as a star, and a staple of many comedy classics.
Gene Wilder’s ability to humanize the characters he played set him apart. I recently watched his portrayal of the eccentric and genius Willy Wonka for the first time. In elementary school I remember my teachers playing Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory whenever they didn’t feel like teaching, and — since I went to public school — I saw it quite a few times. Wilder’s portrayal astounded me by adding complexity and humanity to the character. His grand entrance to the film, as Wonka walks out of the factory slowly, hobbling and leaning on a cane, delighted me. He makes a long and dramatic walk to greet the children at the gates of the factory and suddenly drops his cane and rolls into a perfect somersault. This move, which Wilder suggested, serves as a bold yet whimsical introduction to the eccentricity of his Willy Wonka. Not all somersaults and lollipops, Gene Wilder masterfully adds a dose of darkness and cynicism. He balances the edge and snark of Wonka with the humanity behind his eyes, making the character complicated and frenetic, but still likeable and inspired.
Not just a standalone movie star, Wilder proved to be a generous scene partner, allowing his comedy partnership with Richard Pryor to flourish in four movies. They created “smart” comedy—filled with deeper meaning below the surface, opening the minds of audiences to larger themes. The two stars riffed on their obvious racial differences, satirizing bigotry and inequality in the world. They engaged audiences in the topic of race in a lighthearted and comfortable way at a time when show business didn’t touch such topics.
Married four times, Wilder opened his heart open to love, particularly in his most publicized relationship with the late great SNL alum Gilda Radner. He met Radner while filming Sidney Poitier’s Hanky Panky in 1981, and they married in 1984. An iconic member of SNL’s original cast, her eyes blazed with the same brightness as Wilder’s. Quirky and resilient, she survived a difficult upbringing with a magnetic zeal for life and the essence of kindness.
Photos of the two together portray a joyful couple who made room for whimsy in their relationship. They never took themselves too seriously. Their relationship would’ve likely fit beautifully into the current “#relationshipgoals” movement had Tumblr been around when they were dating. Radner described her vibrant life post meeting Wilder as having gone “from black and white to Technicolor.”
Wilder’s love and devotion for Radner survived even her death from ovarian cancer in 1982. His life after his wife’s tragic death exemplifies his kindness and humanity. He honored her legacy by promoting cancer awareness and helped to found the Los Angeles Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center and co-founded Gilda’s Club, a support group for those struggling with cancer.
After losing Gilda, he married his fourth wife Karen Boyer in 1991. The couple stayed together until his death. Wilder took his time to mourn but chose to re-enter the world of dating, something he said Radner would’ve preferred to him living in misery for the rest of his days. He said, “For years I have thought about Gilda and cancer every day. The time has come for me to rejoin the human race … I am happier than I have ever been, thanks to Karen.” Wilder’s death came just a week before his 25th wedding anniversary with Boyer.
Sadly, I didn’t appreciate Gene Wilder until I heard about his passing. In learning about him, I feel moved by this remarkable person. Aside from his mark on the world of comedy and his inimitable acting style, Wilder seems like an incredibly kind and warm person, one who exuded positivity and openness, even in the most trying of times. His great works live on and his talent will captivate future generations, even if it’s in the form of a new, up-and-coming Wonka meme.