Gene Wilder was a much-beloved actor for many generations with his comedic turns in such films as Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, The Producers and Young Frankenstein. A writer and performer, Wilder had a fairly short career and yet remained one of the most enduring stars of his time but despite this, there are still some little-known facts about him that many do not know.
Here we take a look at the star and some of the things you may have never heard about him and his life.
1. He Created Willy Wonka’s Iconic Entrance
A talented writer himself, when offered the role of Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, Wilder went through the script and made some notes saying he would only play the role if he could include his own intro of his character which saw a decrepit Wonka shuffling towards the massed crowds waiting for him before his cane gets stuck in the ground and he falls forward only to produce a tumble and roll right back onto his feet and stand up straight in a burst of energy.
An iconic scene, Wilder said it was needed “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth,” and it added to the mysterious, devious nature of the character.
2. He Disliked The Willy Wonka Remake
Despite being closer to the source material of the original Roald Dahl book, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, the Tim Burton adaptation of the film Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, starring Johnny Depp, was roundly considered to lack the fun and just downright oddness of the 1971 movie. That being said, it is darker and certainly has its own identity.
Wilder, however, despised it and took it as a personal sleight, claiming it as a cynical cash grab and saying “I think it’s an insult…Johnny Depp, I think, is a good actor, but I don’t care for that director. He’s a talented man, but I don’t care for him doing stuff like he did.” Considering that author Roald Dahl hated the 1971 version of the film, it is an interesting turn of events.
3. He Stopped Acting Because He Thought Films Were Becoming Rubbish
Despite being a much loved and incredibly talented actor, Wilder had a relatively short-lived career due to the fact the last film he appeared in was in 1991. Why would such an immense talent stop appearing in films nearly 25 years before his death? Well, put simply, hew thought films were becoming senseless and he claimed he was receiving fewer and fewer decent scripts.
He had no interest in 3D, and he criticized mindless action, saying “I didn’t want to do ones where it’s just bombing and swearing”…”can’t they just stop and talk, just talk, instead of swearing?” The thing is, he kind of has a point.
4. He Had An Estranged Daughter
Dating Mary Joan Schutz in the 1960s, the relationship became serious and Schutz’s daughter Katherine started referring to Wilder as ‘dad’ so when Wilder married Joan in 1967, he also adopted Katherine. However, after seven years, the marriage came to an end and Katherine was under the impression that Wilder was engaged in an affair that led to the divorce.
This led to the start of the estrangement but in his memoir, Wilder talks about other reasons writing that he used to have an intense need to be the center of attention, and even sharing that space with his daughter, whom he cared for deeply, became “too crowded.”
5. He Wasn’t Short of Money
Despite having a fairly short career in acting, Wilder made most of his money this way from several hit films which he both wrote and starred in. After this, he also became a serial novelist and these books also sold well. He didn’t live a modest lifestyle but neither did he spend his money on garish and unnecessary luxury items.
Taking into account property and his legacy which includes his books, TV movies based on his memoirs, subsidiary rights for a Broadway musical, licensing of images and intellectual property to distribute or hold back, Wilder was probably worth around $20 million on his death.
6. Gene Wilder Wasn’t His Real Name
Despite being known to the world as Gene Wilder, the actor was born Jerome Silberman in 1933, son of Jeanne and William Silberman. Wilder decided to adopt his better-known name when he began pursuing a career as a professional actor and took inspiration from the worlds of theater and literature.
The name came about due to fondness for the Thomas Wolfe character Eugene Gant in the 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel. This, combined with his admiration of the playwright Thornton Wilder led to him finding fame as Gene Wilder.
7. He Was Enrolled In A Military Institute
Wilder first took to comedy when his mother was diagnosed with rheumatic fever and the doctor asked Gene to try and make her laugh. A young Gene took to the challenge with aplomb and enjoyed the absurdity of his acts and the attention it gained him but his mother wasn’t convinced that acting was a good career choice and so sent him to Black-Foxe, a military institute in Hollywood meant to teach discipline and practical skills.
Wilder hated it there and claimed he was bullied and sexually assaulted for being the only Jewish student there. It did, however, make him even more determined to become an actor.
8. He Was A Published and Succesful Novelist
We briefly touched upon this with his net worth but Wilder didn’t stop working once he had retired from acting and kept writing and penned three novels and a collection of short stories. Wilder’s first novel was released in 2007, a comedic spy romance titled My French Whore.
The novels all had a comedic aspect to them that fans of his film work would instantly recognize as his distinct sense of humor shines through.
9. He Was A Prominent Cancer Activist
Wilder supported cancer charities and was a vocal advocate of support and treatment for cancer which arose from his experience with his second wife Gilda Radner who dies of Ovarian cancer. Founding the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in California as well as Gilda’s Club, an organization for people living with cancer, Wilder would help fund these organizations.
In 2009 Gilda’s Club merged with The Wellness Community, continuing support patients and their families more than fifteen years later.
10. He Was An Avid Fencer
In his early 20s Wilder would study in England at thew Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and whilst there he took up fencing. The sport involves two competitors duelling with harmless swords known as foils and Wilder was so good at the sport that he became the first ever freshman to the win the school’s fencing championship and was encouraged to pursue it further.
Returning to America to pursue acting, Wilder remained fond of the sport and would incorporate it into some of his films.