Gene Wilder was the greatest kind of comic actor: one who not only knew how to read a joke, but also how to inhabit it. In his hands, a line reading could be suffused with menace, or compassion, or demented delight, and no matter what, it would be deeply funny to behold. Wilder, who died at age 83 on Monday due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease, was a consummate performer who made every project he worked on better, from Mel Brooks’ masterpieces of the 1970s to his collaborations with Richard Pryor. He was a screen presence who always seemed to possess an otherworldly energy, making him the obvious (and best) choice to play Willy Wonka, Roald Dahl’s avatar of sheer wonder. His footprint as a comic actor was immense, with his best work showing the depth of craft that went into building a memorable performance.
Wilder, born Jerome Silberman in 1933, was transfixed by acting from a young age and was classically trained in Britain and New York, rising through the theater world as a devotee of Lee Strasberg’s legendary method-acting teachings. He took his stage name from the protagonist of Look Homeward, Angel and the playwright Thornton Wilder. He found success on and off Broadway before playing a small, pivotal role as a hostage in Arthur Penn’s 1967 smash hit Bonnie & Clyde. But his breakout moment came when he was cast in 1968’s The Producers as the nervous accountant Leo Bloom, after being noticed on Broadway by a young Brooks. Wilder’s performance launched his film career and netted him an Academy Award nomination for only his second on-screen appearance.