Gene Wilder: 7 Best Roles

Warner Bros.

Comedy legend Gene Wilder passed away at the age of 83 on Monday after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, the Associated Press reported.

Whether conning Broadway investors with a daring scheme in Mel Brooks’ The Producers or conjuring up “pure imagination” as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the frizzy-haired comedic genius kept audiences laughing through nearly five decades of iconic performances.

Here’s a look at seven of Wilder’s best roles.

 #7 — The Woman in Red

Wilder directed and starred as Teddy Pierce in this 1984 classic, alongside wife Gilda Radner, whom he had met on the set of 1982’s Hanky Panky. The Woman in Red was never considered to be one of Wilder’s best films, though it did feature truly funny bits like this classic scene, in which Wilder’s character fakes outrage when a friend tries to get him out of his house, as his wife (played by Judith Ivey) has a gun trained on his crotch.

#6 — Stir Crazy

The second film to pair Wilder with fellow comedian Richard Pryor (after Silver Streak in 1976), 1980’s Stir Crazy was a box office smash, becoming the third highest-grossing movie of that year.

Directed by Sidney Poitier, Wilder starred as Skip Donohue, who, along with actor Harry Monroe, is sentenced to 125 years in prison in a maximum-security prison for a bank robbery the pair did not commit.

Wilder’s reaction during the sentencing scene is pure comedy gold:

#5 — The Frisco Kid

Wilder starred as San Francisco-bound Polish rabbi Avram Belinski in this 1979 Western comedy, alongside then-relatively unknown actor Harrison Ford.

The movie itself never got great reviews (it only stands at 53% on Rotten Tomatoes) but a long-bearded Wilder is brilliant while trying to explain how God can do everything except make rain (“Of course, sometimes just like that, he’ll change his mind.”)

#4 — Young Frankenstein

Wilder plays the disaffected grandson of Victor Frankenstein in this 1974 Mel Brooks-directed horror spoof, which Wilder co-wrote. The film would go on to become one of the biggest hits of Wilder’s career, and he and Brooks were nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar at the 1975 awards.

Wilder was at his best playing off of Marty Feldman’s Igor (“It’s pronounced, ‘Eye-gor'”), and his face at the end of this clip is priceless.

#3 — The Producers

Wilder starred as unscrupulous “Springtime for Hitler” producer Leo Bloom in this 1968 cult classic, the first of his collaborations with Mel Brooks. Wilder had met Brooks through Brooks’ then-girlfriend Anne Bancroft, with whom he starred in the 1963 Broadway show Mother Courage and Her Children.

Brooks won a Best Screenplay Oscar at the 1969 Academy Awards and Wilder was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The film would go on to become a Broadway hit starring Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, and the film was remade in 2005 with the same stars.

Bloom and Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) cook up a scheme to intentionally produce the worst musical of all time in an effort to make away with the investors’ seed money — only problem is, the play becomes a big hit, ruining the pair’s plans.

Perhaps the funniest scene in the whole movie is Wilder’s “wet, hysterical” nervous breakdown:

#2 — Blazing Saddles

The quintessential comedy that could simply not be made today lest it be branded “politically incorrect,” Wilder is perfectly cast as the Waco Kid, whose hobbies include chess, screwing and drinking whiskey by the bottle.

While its cultural impact wasn’t immediately understood at the time of its 1974 release, the film has since found its way onto dozens of Best Film lists and was selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2006.

#1 — Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Wilder was at his devilishly mischievous best in perhaps his best-known role, as enigmatic chocolate factory chief Willy Wonka in 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Like Blazing Saddles, Willy Wonka was also selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, and Wilder was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance.

This one needs no further introduction. Rest in peace, Mr. Wilder.


Follow Daniel Nussbaum on Twitter: @dznussbaum