This week, Gene Wilder's family confirmed the legendary Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory actor passed away from complications from Alzheimer's disease at the age of 83. The comedy great has since been remembered by those he knew personally, those he worked with and those who he influenced along his long and fruitful career.
From Russell Crowe to Olivia Wilde, celebrities shared an outpouring of support and remembrance to celebrate the life of Gene Wilder. But no tribute hit fans quite as hard as the one made by his longtime friend and artistic collaborator, Mel Brooks.
In the 1960s and '70s, Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks were the comedic duo to beat. Between them, they brought classic titles like The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein to life. Their cult classics still hold strong today and are widely considered some of the best comedies to ever grace the silver screen.
When it comes to understanding the working and personal life of Wilder, few people understood him the same way Brooks did. According to Wilder, their friendship was kismet. During PBS’s American Masters documentary on Brooks, the interviewer asked Wilder if he found their meeting important in any way, Wilder laughs and responded, "When God spoke to Moses the first time [it's like] if you ask him, ‘Was that significant in your life?’"
In a 2014 interview with HitFix, Brooks described how he met Wilder and the artistic relationship that quickly formed after meeting in 1963. At the time, Wilder wast starring in the Broadway show Mother Courage and Her Children alongside Anne Bancroft, Brooks's girlfriend at the time.
"So, you know, we got to be friends, and he’d come off-stage and he’d say, 'Why are they laughing at me? I didn’t intend that thing to be funny. Some scenes are serious and some scenes are funny. But I didn’t intend for that to be funny, so why are they laughing?' And I said, 'Blame God. Look in the mirror. When you speak earnestly, you have a funny expression on your face. It just tells me to laugh, so you’ve got to be careful, you know' ... The straighter he plays it, the funnier he is."
Wilder and Brooks ignited a creative spark in each other that couldn't be tempered. A few years followed before the two collaborated on 'Springtime for Hitler,' later retitled The Producers. The Producers marked Wilder's first leading role in a feature-length film, and ultimately went on to earn him an Academy Award nomination and Brooks an Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay.
Despite that Oscar night leaving Wilder without a gilded statuette, The Producers was just the start of his work with the director. Brooks spoke of Wilder's inimitable brilliance in the role of Leo Bloom in an interview with NPR in 2013. Brooks claims that Wilder singlehandedly elevated the film from something good to something fantastic.
"Gene brought a certain something that was never before, that was kind of creative comedy. And he worked tirelessly to play Leo Bloom. He's really the nucleus, the brilliant key to the emotion of the whole piece — and Gene worked for almost scale, for nothing, day and night. And ... I couldn't thank him enough. When I finally put the movie together, I said, 'It would have been a good movie with just Zero Mostel and anybody, but with Gene Wilder it's a wondrous movie."
Over the next five years, the two friends worked together writing the screenplay that would later become Young Frankenstein, but they briefly put it on hold in 1974 to create what might be known as Wilder's best work, Blazing Saddles.
While it's hard to picture anyone else playing the Waco Kid, Wilder wasn't Brooks's first, second or even third choice. As much as he loved working with Wilder, Brooks had his heart set on casting an older actor with a rough past. It was until a string of unfortunate casting woes that Brooks settled on Wilder, who remained steadfast in vying for the role. As we know now, their combined efforts paid off like crazy.
In the 2007 DVD edition of Blazing Saddles, Brooks expressed his deep sentiment for Wilder and the actor's ability to not only save a project — but to exceed all expectations.
"He saved my life, because he's not only a genius actor, but he's a good friend. And he never said, 'I told you so.' I wanted an old alky. I got a young Jew from New York -- and he was magnificent."
After Blazing Saddles was released, the pair worked quickly to finish their next project, Young Frankenstein. The black and white comedy was the complete brainchild of Brooks and Wilder. Together, the pair co-wrote the script, Brooks directed, and Wilder starred as the titular character.
During a 1975 interview with Playboy, Brooks said it best. In a few sentences, he was able to summarize the feeling of magic that came with watching Gene Wilder perform. He was incredible to watch because each performance was so undeniably genuine.
"Gene is a natural. Gene acts like a bird flies. Learns all his technique and then leaves the earth and flies around the set like a crazy Jewish bird. And his instincts are always right. Gene as Dr. Frankenstein is Promethean! He is still the great hysterical prey that God made him, the victim in all of us, but he is also a great leader, a great genius. His acting is very big and thrilling and Chagallian."
On the 40th anniversary of the film Brooks stated that, in his long career, Young Frankenstein was far and beyond his best work. The only other titles that he recognized were his other collaborations with Wilder.
"'Young Frankenstein [was] by far the best movie I ever made. Not the funniest — 'Blazing Saddles' was the funniest, and hot on its heels would be 'The Producers.' But as a writer-director, it is by far my finest."
Over the course of multiple decades, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder established their distinct careers and legacies, and few artistic collaborations helped bolster one another to new creative heights quite like theirs.
Gene Wilder did not believe in fate, per se. However, in 2005, he openly acknowledged that meeting Mel Brooks was enough to convince him that some mysterious force in the universe was in place that brought them together.
"I don't know what to call it: luck, good fortune, irony. When you consider that if Jerome Robbins hadn't miscast me in 'Mother Courage. after six readings ... starring Anne Bancroft, whose boyfriend was Mel Brooks. How would my life be different now? It wouldn't be the same, that's for sure. I wouldn't have done 'The Producers' or 'Blazing Saddles' or 'Young Frankenstein.' I never used to believe in fate. I used to think you make your own life and then you call it fate. That's why I call it irony."
Last night Brooks expressed his sentiments and shock to Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show.
"He was such a dear friend. I expected that he would go but when it happens, it's still tremendous. It's a big shock. I'm still reeling. No more Gene? ... He was such a wonderful part of my life."
Whether their meeting and subsequent partnership was rooted in irony, fate, or complete happenstance, we are incredibly lucky it happened — and the film industry is all the better for it.
Rest in peace, Gene Wilder.
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