With his wild curly hair, large expressive blue eyes, slight lisp, and nervous mannerism, Gene Wilder seems on the surface the epitome of the mild-mannered bookkeeper type, but a close look reveals a volatile energy lying beneath the milquetoast, a mad spark in the eye, and a tendency to explode into discombobulated manic hilarity, usually as a result of being unable to handle the chaos that surrounds his characters. In fact one might label Wilder the consummate reactor rather than a traditional thespian. During the 1970s, Wilder starred in some of the decade's most popular comedies. Though he has spent the bulk of his career on his own, Wilder was at his best when he was collaborating with Mel Brooks. Such films as The Producers, Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles have become modern American classics.
The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Wilder was born Jerome "Jerry" Silberman in Milwaukee, WI. His father manufactured miniature beer and whiskey bottles. Wilder began studying drama and working in summer stock while studying at the University of Iowa. Following graduation, he furthered his dramatic studies at England's Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Wilder was an exceptional fencer and while there won the school's fencing championship. Upon his return to the U.S., Wilder supported himself by teaching fencing. At other times, he also drove a limo and sold toys. After gaining experience off-Broadway in the early '60s, Wilder joined the Actors Studio. This led to several successful Broadway appearances. Wilder made his feature film debut playing a small but memorable role as a timid undertaker who is kidnapped by the protagonists of Arthur Penn's violent Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The following year Wilder worked with Mel Brooks for the first time, co-starring opposite Zero Mostel in the screamingly funny Producers (1968). His role as the neurotic accountant Leo Bloom who is seduced into a mad scheme by a once powerful Broadway producer into a crazy money-making scheme. Wilder's performance earned him an Oscar nomination. In his next film, Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), Wilder demonstrated his fencing prowess while playing one of two pairs of twins separated at birth during the years of the French Revolution. He demonstrated a more dramatic side in the underrated romantic comedy/drama Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (aka Fun Loving) (1970). The following year, Wilder starred in what many fondly remember as one of his best roles, that of the mad chocolatier Willy Wonka in the darkly comic musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Despite these and other efforts, Wilder did not become a major star until Young Frankenstein (1974), a loving and uproarious send-up of Universal horror movies for which he and Brooks wrote the script.