How Jerome Silberman Became Gene Wilder
  Resource:blouinartinfo   2016-08-31 10:01:24  

Years before Gene Wilder became a beloved comic actor through such films as “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Stir Crazy,” he was an eager student and devotee of the stage. Known largely as a clown who could indelibly combine a high-pitched agita with a sweet melancholy in his movies, Wilder always considered himself an actor first, rather than a comedian — one who had nurtured his art at the Bristol Old Vic in England and the Actors’ Studio in New York.

That’s not to say that Wilder, who died at age 83 on August 29, didn’t appreciate the fact that laughter was his enduring legacy. Upon his death, it was revealed that a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s had clouded his last three years. The illness had not been previously disclosed, said his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman, because the actor had not wanted children, who knew him as the antic candy-maker in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” to be confused or disappointed. “He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world,” Walker-Pearlman wrote.

To his family, Wilder was known as Jerry, having been born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on June 11, 1933, the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant. He got the theater bug after seeing his sister perform on the stage, and by the age of 15 he made his official stage debut, in a local theater community production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Following a stint in the army, he moved to New York City and began taking courses at the prestigious Herbert Berghof Studio, supporting himself as a limo driver and fencing instructor, a skill he’d previously picked up during a six-month stint at the Bristol Old Vic.

Subsumed in New York theater, he cast off his birth name—Jerome Silberman in “Macbeth” didn’t quite have the right ring to him—and honored two of his favorite writers with a new one: Thomas Wolfe, through his character Eugene Gant, and Thornton Wilder. Thus it was a Gene Wilder that the 27-year-old actor made his Broadway debut as the hotel valet in the Graham Greene comedy “The Complaisant Lover” in 1961, which he quickly followed with the role that would change his life. Little did he know that playing the chaplain in Jerome Robbins’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” would set him on a path to becoming one of Hollywood’s foremost comic actors.

Anne Bancroft, fresh off her triumph in “The Miracle Worker,” was starring as Mother Courage and she introduced Wilder to her then-boyfriend Mel Brooks. Five years later, after Wilder had made a stirring film debut as a helpless bank teller in Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” he and Zero Mostel starred as two cons out to bilk Broadway investors in “The Producers.” The role, which made the most of Wilder’s skill at neurosis-tinged humor — “I’m not going into the toilet. I’m going into show biz!” — brought Wilder the first of his two Academy Award nominations. (The second was for co-writing Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein,” in which he also starred.)

On the news of Wilder’s death, Brooks tweeted, “One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship.”

Launched by “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles” as a film star, Wilder never returned to the stage. He forged new partnerships with the likes of Richard Pryor (“Silver Streak,” “Stir Crazy”) and Gilda Radner, whom he met on the set of 1982’s “Hanky Panky.”  The couple made two more movies, “The Woman in Red” and “The Haunted Honeymoon.” But their marriage — her second, his third — was their most successful collaboration, lasting from 1984 until Radner’s death of ovarian cancer in 1989.  In her posthumously published memoir, “It’s Always Something,”  she wrote about their courtship: “It felt like my life went from black and white to Technicolor. Gene was funny and athletic and handsome, and he smelled good. I was bitten with love.”

That “Technicolor” reference is a good one in describing Wilder’s explosive comic brilliance. And while he leaves behind a trove of ebullient comic performances — his directors also included Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, Arthur Penn, and Sidney Poitier — one of his most celebrated roles is also one of his most subdued. “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” was a disappointment when it was first released in 1971, but it has since grown in stature and popularity due to repeated television airings and a 1996 re-release. It also contains a memorable line that serves as something of fitting epitaph:

“So much time and so little to do. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it. Thank you.”

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