University of Iowa grad Gene Wilder, known for neurotic comedy roles, dies

A trove of papers he donated to the UI includes a 'Young Frankenstein' script

  • Photo
Gazette staff and wires

Gene Wilder, an actor whose work with comics Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor made him one of the most popular stars of the 1970s and whose memorable portrayals of neurotics and eccentrics included the hilariously mad scientist in “Young Frankenstein,” died Sunday at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 83.

A nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, said in a statement the cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Wilder — then known by his birth name of Jerome Silberman — grew up in the Midwest and attended the University of Iowa, where he appeared in student productions and played in summer stock. He graduated from the UI in 1955 with a B.A. in communications and theatre arts.

In 2001, he honored his alma mater by bestowing, with brother-in-law and co-author Gil Pearlman, a substantial collection of movie memorabilia, photographs and scripts — including a draft of “Young Frankenstein” — to the Department of Special Collections at the UI Libraries.

Wilder, who later trained at the Old Vic in England, was known for bringing classical stage technique to Brooks’s outlandish humor.

“My job was to make him more subtle,” Wilder once said. “His job was to make me more broad.”

But sometimes Wilder brought important comic ideas to Brooks. While filming “Young Frankenstein” (1974), a tribute to Universal Studios horror movies of the 1930s whose cast included Des Moines native Cloris Leachman, Wilder urged that he and the monster tap-dance a duet to “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

Brooks objected until a test audience reacted with howls of laughter.

Wilder’s Harpo Marx-like mop of hair, his slight physique and his soft voice might have hindered a career as a leading man. But Brooks once said he found Wilder “an Everyman with all the vulnerability showing. One day God said, ‘Let there be prey,’ and he created pigeons, rabbits, lambs and Gene Wilder.”

Brooks channeled the actor’s comic talents into many types of roles.

For the theatrical farce “The Producers” (1968), Wilder played an ultra-nervous accountant who becomes hysterical when his security blanket is taken away.

In the western spoof “Blazing Saddles” (1974), Wilder played the other extreme as the Waco Kid, an alcoholic gunman whose draw is so quick that he disarms eight attackers in one scene without the camera detecting any expression or movement on his part.

His other well-known portrayals included the candymaker who gleefully watches greedy children meet their just deserts in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971) and a doctor lovestruck with a sheep named Daisy in Woody Allen’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask” (1972).

With Pryor, Wilder made several buddy comedies that broke ground in their interracial teaming, including “Silver Streak” (1976) and “Stir Crazy” (1980).

Jerome Silberman was born in Milwaukee on June 11, 1933. He later took his stage name from the playwright Thornton Wilder. His first name came from the main character of Thomas Wolfe’s novel “Look Homeward, Angel.”

As a boy, Wilder was warned by a doctor that if he showed anger to his emotionally fragile mother it might kill her. So he spent hours trying to make her laugh and from there developed an interest in theater.

His small role in Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” in 1963 proved crucial. Also in the show was actor Anne Bancroft, whose then-boyfriend — Brooks — was a TV comedy writer struggling with a film script.

The film was “The Producers,” and the supporting role brought Wilder an Academy Award nomination. His only other Oscar nomination was for co-writing “Young Frankenstein.”

Wilder’s career faded in the 1980s after making a series of undistinguished films, several co-starring his third wife, “Saturday Night Live” alumna Gilda Radner.

After her death from ovarian cancer in 1989, he co-wrote a book about ovarian cancer and started a support network.

Wilder made no more movie appearances after 1991, although he acted on TV and won a 2003 Emmy for a guest role on “Will & Grace.”

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

Give us feedback

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Tell us here.
Do you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.