Actor Gene Wilder has died, aged 83 - continuing 2016’s trend as a wholly depressing year for celebrity deaths. Numerous contemporaries from Hollywood and beyond have paid tribute, and those unaware of Wilder’s work will be an instant fan when they read the way he rejected an invite to appear on James Corden’s The Late Late Show. Here, GR+ presents its own look back at Wilder’s career. Best known as Willy Wonka, his sense of comic timing was legendary whether playing chocolate factory owner, cowboy, or crazy Frankenstein family member.
The Producers (1968)
Wilder’s second film role after 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde would go on to be seen as prototypical for the actor: guy who seems normal at first yet quickly goes to pieces, with hilarious results. Here he plays accountant Leo opposite Zero Mostel’s greedy Hollywood producer Max, going to town with Mel Brooks’ famously anti-PC script – co-creating a musical centred on “the Hitler you loved, the Hitler you knew, the Hitler with a song in his heart”.
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)
Forget Johnny Depp. To at least three generations of film fans, Wilder will always be the Willy Wonka. He brought Roald Dahl’s novel to life with just the right balance of aloofness and cynicism, the focal point of a film laced with humour and - occasionally - horror. It’s a masterful performance, which garnered a Golden Globe nomination and is deservedly revered to this day.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Home to one of cinema’s most famous fart scene (and indeed, the first movie to incorporate audible flatulence), Wilder plays recovering alcoholic the Waco Kid (AKA Jim) in this classic cowboy caper. His performance is one packed with laugh-out-loud lines, but it’s one with heart, too - the bromance between Jim and makeshift sheriff Black Bart set the standard for interracial buddy comedies.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
An idea of Wilder’s own conception, pitched to director Mel Brooks on the set of Blazing Saddles. As the title suggests he plays a descendent of Dr Frankenstein, hilariously spoofing the horror genre - in particular by-the-numbers adaptions of Mary Shelley’s hugely famous novel. His slapstick performance of Puttin’ on the Ritz alongside Peter Boyle remains timeless and is well worth a watch.
Stir Crazy (1980)
One of five movies Wilder made alongside Richard Pryor, and the one which has best stood the test of time. Few actors today could get away with the scene where white guy Wilder ‘acts black’, but it provided the template for countless stand-up performances along that theme, and perfectly demonstrate how he’d come to master his gifts for physical comedy.