The Late Movies: Gene Wilder

Erica Palan

No matter what time it is and what else I have to do, if I happen to catch a glimpse of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on television, I have to watch the whole thing. I recently got sucked in to what must be my eight millionth viewing. In honor of my addiction, here are some of Gene Wilder's best moments on the big and small screen.

Alka Seltzer Commercial

In 1960, Wilder did the voice-over for this commercial for the popular antacid.

The Producers

Wilder became fast friends with Mel Brooks in the early 1960s when he starred alongside Anne Bancroft in Mother Courage and Her Children. At the time, Bancroft was dating Brooks, who was working on a screenplay called Springtime for Hitler (which eventually was renamed The Producers). Brooks thought Wilder would be perfect for the lead and made him promise not to make any major commitments without checking in on the project's status. Months later, he was called in to audition for a role in The Producers.

Start the Revolution Without Me

After The Producers, Wilder moved to Paris where he starred in this film by Bud Yorkin.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Though originally hesitant to take on the title role in this adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic, Wilder eventually agreed—with one condition. "When I make my first entrance, I'd like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I'm walking on and stands straight up, by itself ... but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause," he said, claiming that from that point forward, no one would ever know whether Willy Wonka was telling the truth.

Young Frankenstein

After working with Mel Brooks on Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), Wilder began writing a script he called Young Frankenstein. He showed it to Brooks who had little interest. Months later, Wilder received a call from his then-agent, Mike Medavoy, who asked if he had anything where he could include Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman. Wilder was inspired to write a scene that takes place at Transylvania Station, where Igor and Frederick meet for the first time and Medavoy was so impressed he called Brooks to ask him to direct. Brooks was still not entirely convinced, but accepted the challenge. Wilder and Brooks received Best Adapted Screenplay nominations at the 1975 Oscars.

Blazing Saddles

While working on the Young Frankenstein script, Wilder was offered a role in the adaptation of Saint Exupéry's book, The Little Prince. Just as filming was about to begin, Wilder received an urgent call from Mel Brooks, who was filming Blazing Saddles. Actor Dan Dailey dropped out at the last minute and Brooks wanted Wilder to fill in. Wilder quickly shot his scenes for Blazing Saddles and immediately filmed The Little Prince.

Stir Crazy

After working with Richard Pryor in Silver Streak, Wilder was convinced to again team up with the famed comedian for this role. Directed by Sidney Poitier, it became an international success. New York magazine listed "Skip Donahue" (Wilder) and "Harry Monroe" (Pryor) # 9 on their 2007 list of "The 15 Most Dynamic Duos in Pop Culture History."

Hanky Panky

Poitier and Wilder remained friends and began writing a script together. Originally titled Traces, the film was later renamed Hanky Panky and starred Wilder alongside Gilda Radner. Radner and Wilder hit it off and were eventually married.

Something Wilder

In 1994, Wilder starred in the NBC sitcom Something Wilder. The show was a critical and commercial failure. It was canceled after one season. Since then, Wilder sometimes appears on television, but has largely disappeared from the public eye.